John Hanger is president and CEO of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture), a public interest membership organization that works to create a just future where nature, communities, and the economy thrive.

Monday, 9 Dec 2002

HARRISBURG, Penn.

The line from the John Lennon song Beautiful Boy — “Life is what happens while you are making other plans” — certainly sums up our recent experiences at PennFuture.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Usually, late November and early December are slower times for us. The legislature is out. Many of our staff and colleagues are on vacation. And we all get to take a deep breath and try to unbury our desks from the accumulated paper blizzard.

But not this year. Thanks to many factors — the machinations of the Bush administration, our state’s transition to a new governor, and the Pennsylvania lame duck legislative session — this has been a very busy time.

Along with everyone else in the environmental community, we’ve been working hard to counter the federal government’s spin on its cutback of the Clean Air Act. We have been lucky to be able to rely on the great work of Eric Schaeffer and the Environmental Integrity Project in Washington, D.C.; on Lou Piels of the Rockefeller Family Fund in New York City; and on Armond Cohen, Conrad Schneider, Jane Kochersperger, and others of the Clean Air Task Force in Boston. They have helped us enormously with reports and studies to show exactly how the administration’s attack on clean air will affect Pennsylvanians.

More than one million people in our state already suffer from respiratory problems, most of them children and the elderly. And more than 2,200 Pennsylvanians die each year from pollution from the “dirty dinosaur” power plants both in-state and to our west. The government’s failure to force utilities to clean up these old plants has already created grave health risks here, and the Bush plan would halt any progress we have made.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

This is not an academic issue for me; it is one I feel deeply. I have the joy every year of coaching a girls’ soccer team, and each year, more and more of the players in every league have breathing problems. It isn’t unusual for many of the girls to have to use inhalers, and on hot, muggy days with over-the-top soot and smog readings, I worry that these great athletes might be risking their long-term health. It is just so great to see young women strive and achieve, and no one should have to worry that serious health risks are the price of “reaching for the stars.”

So when the Bush administration made their Orwellian announcement that they were going to gut New Source Review regulations in order to clean up the air (this decade’s version of “Destroy the village in order to save it”), the PennFuture staff all shifted into high gear to make sure that every reporter covering this in Pennsylvania understood exactly how bad this new policy would be for our state.

And we were pretty successful. We got the truth out to the public and the administration’s attempts to greenwash the move failed.

Grist relies on the support of generous readers like you. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations matched!

But we didn’t stop there. We made sure to reach out to our governor-elect and his advisors to let them know how important it is for Pennsylvania to protect public health from pollution, even when the federal government can’t or won’t.

But that — and our work to make our state, and our state government, leaders for the environment — is another tale, one that I will tell tomorrow.

Tuesday, 10 Dec 2002

HARRISBURG, Penn.

Yesterday’s PennFuture telephone staff meeting went a lot longer than I expected, due to one of the issues I mentioned yesterday — the fact that Pennsylvania will have a new governor on January 21.

The environmental community here has high hopes for our state’s new leader, Ed Rendell (D). He sought and received the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters and other environmental groups, and he consulted with many in the community during his campaign. And while he didn’t always agree with us 100 percent on every issue, his efforts to bring us to the table were a breath of fresh air for many.

The PennFuture staff is particularly hopeful, since we are the only group in the state that combines three important tools to protect the environment — litigation, legislation, and communication. For us, a change in state government could make a big difference.

For the past three years, we have been playing defense. Our seven lawyers have spent most of their time representing the environmental community, sporting and fishing groups, mining communities, and community organizations in their efforts to enforce the law or make agencies do their jobs to prevent more damage to the environment. And our communications staff has constantly had to counter the “spin” by the state government, which insists that all’s well with nature, even as it reveals bad permitting decisions — which are nearly always announced on late Friday afternoons!

So an administration more amenable to environmental protection would be a great improvement to our staff and our workload, not to mention to the well-being of Pennsylvanians. And we might actually be able to make some positive change.

But promises are one thing. Now comes the hard part. And we all know that personnel is policy, so who gets appointed to which positions will go a long way toward determining how environmental policy is set in the state.

So far, though, we are pleased with the appointment of the co-chairs for the transition team for the environment, especially the choice of Caren Glotfelty, program director for environmental grantmaking for the Heinz Endowments. Caren’s record of commitment to the environment and her understanding of how government works will serve our state well.

Green Mountain Windfarm in Garrett, Penn.

Photo: Terri Taylor.

And, much to my surprise, I was named a co-chair of the energy transition team — a tribute to the great work PennFuture does on renewable energy, as well as recognition of my former position as a member of the Public Utility Commission. Pennsylvania has an opportunity for leadership in building and using clean renewable energy. That would help economic development, public health, and the environment. After all, changing what kind of energy we use is the single most important thing anyone can do to help the environment. The average Pennsylvania family that switches from traditional electricity to 100 percent green energy does as much good for the environment as planting 950 trees. Thanks to tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians who are buying green energy, our state is already the regional leader in wind power. (Click here to learn how you can join this revolution.)

As Bertrand Russell warned us, “Change is one thing, progress is another.” But there are some signs of hope — even in our previously difficult legislature — which I’ll get into tomorrow.

Wednesday, 11 Dec 2002

HARRISBURG, Penn.

Yesterday, at the meeting of the Pennsylvania League of Conservation Voters board of directors, we hired a new executive director, Cathy Hammond, and I’m very excited about working with her. She previously worked for a state senator, and I think she’ll really be a great addition to the environmental forces. Of course, I’m not nearly as excited as Phil Coleman, who has been working for months as the interim executive director. I’m sure that wasn’t how he envisioned his retirement! But now he’s back to southwestern Pennsylvania, where he is a mainstay of the Sierra Club.

LCV’s work is critical, because we are only just beginning to make progress in the state legislature. We will need more pro-environment elected officials, responsive to a growing coalition of supporters, if we want to move Pennsylvania ahead on these issues. And the growing environmental coalition was really the untold story of this legislative session.

After the November election, the Pennsylvania legislature came back for a lame duck session. Historically, these lame duck sessions are where a lot of mischief takes place, with bad bills amended onto others in middle-of-the-night sessions. So we knew that we would have to be eternally (or at least, round-the-clock until the end of the session) vigilant to protect our environment.

Fortunately, we had lots of help. We e-published a daily report, “The Lame Duck Follies,” which gave supporters around the state a birds-eye view of the ups and downs of legislative action and behavior, and meant that they could contact legislators as events unfolded. And we worked with a coalition of legislators and activists to successfully fend off three out of four anti-environmental bills.

One of our toughest battles was the fight against Senate Bill 1413, which would have taken away what little authority local governments have to regulate factory farms and the spreading of sewage sludge. It’s abundantly clear that we could not have stopped the bill without a huge effort from strong, community-based grassroots organizations across the state.

By far the bravest person we worked with is Larry Breech of the Pennsylvania Farmers Union. Larry laid his personal reputation on the line, took blistering criticism in stride, and held firm in his support of family farmers. He conducted a monumental education effort with his own members and squared off against corporate agribusiness to help us fight SB 1413. Russell and Antoinette Pennock, who turned the tragedy of losing their son to sludge exposure into a campaign to make sure it doesn’t happen to another family, were also profiles in courage. And the victory would have been impossible without the grassroots work of Tom Linzey and the support of the AFL-CIO.

In the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning, we also fended off a bill that would have exempted the oil and gas industry from parts of the Clean Streams Law and one that would have made it nearly impossible for local governments to buy land for recreation. These victories and other efforts over the years were gained by working with some stalwart partners.

These partners include Jeff Schmidt of the Sierra Club, Bob Wendelgass of Clean Water Action, David Masur of PennEnvironment, Andrew McElwaine of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, Susan Gobreski of the League of Conservation Voters, and the dynamic duo of Joanne Denworth and Janet Milkman at 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania. Our mining work is helped enormously by people who have worked for decades in the coalfields, including Wyona Coleman, Mimi Filippelli, and Bev Braverman (the Mountain Mamas) of the Tri-State Citizens Mining Network. Trout Unlimited, the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, and Ed Perry (formerly of U.S. Fish and Wildlife) have helped us with our mining and stream protection work. Trout Unlimited and PFSC, along with the Bald Eagle Ridge Protection Association and Audubon’s Pennsylvania Chapter, also aid our effort to save Bald Eagle Ridge from a superhighway. Melody Zullinger of PFSC along with Bill Shultz and Joe Neville of the Game Commission have also lent strong shoulders to our work.

We also count on advice and support from the elected state officials. Rep. Mike Veon, always a great source of help, reminds his caucus how important environmental issues are. Reps. Vitali, Levdansky, Surra, George, and Freeman often champion environmental causes on the House floor. And without the help of Reps. Bard, Rubley, Ross, Fairchild, McIlhinney, Yudichak, Steil, Fairchild, Frankel, Feese, Mundy, and Harper, no good environmental legislation would pass, while many more stinkers would head to the governor for his signature. In the Senate, we’re grateful for the presence of Sens. Schwartz and Kukovich, who often wage lonely battles for the environment there.

In the end, the only bill we weren’t able to stop was the Water Resources Bill, championed by the state’s lame duck Department of Environmental Protection. But as I write, DEP is coming under attack for questionable behavior on many sides. I’ll fill you in on that tomorrow.

Thursday, 12 Dec 2002

HARRISBURG, Penn.

Yesterday started rather inauspiciously. I fell right on my butt trying to get to work in yet another ice storm. It’s gonna be a long winter.

But my day wasn’t nearly as bad as that of some of the folks at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. If it weren’t for bad press, they wouldn’t have had any at all.

The largest newspaper in the state, the Philadelphia Inquirer, reported that the news director of that city’s NPR affiliate had resigned due to an unethical reporting arrangement with GreenWorks, an environmental group funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Under the arrangement, the state provided about $466,000 for the project, which covered the salaries of two reporters and a researcher and related expenses. A former staff member, who blew the whistle on the deal, said she was steered away from controversial environmental issues like oil drilling in Allegheny National Forest and was asked to air positive pieces about small projects that had received DEP funding. Journalism experts had said that the arrangement between the station and the state appeared to present a conflict of interest. And while so far the only people to suffer for this behavior are the radio station personnel, this certainly doesn’t put DEP’s reputation in a great light.

Meanwhile, the second-largest newspaper in the state, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, delivered a second black eye to DEP. With a state grand jury investigating the possibility of criminal activity in the permitting or operation of the Quecreek Mine — the site of this summer’s near-disaster when nine coal miners were trapped and nearly drowned by a flood from a previously closed mine — the FBI has begun an investigation into the DEP’s district mining office, where the Quecreek permit was approved. One of the mining engineers in that office states that he warned the district director that the entire mapping system there was inaccurate and unreliable more than a year before the Quecreek accident. That same director has now ordered all staff not to talk about the matter to anyone, even one another, but rather funnel all information through him. The whistleblower views this order as an attempt to intimidate him. Dave Hess, DEP secretary, who is required to resign when the new governor takes office Jan. 21, called the director’s order “indelicate,” and said it was intended to direct information to the “right people guiding the department’s investigation.”

And the Quecreek case, while high profile, is just the tip of the iceberg in DEP’s failure to protect Pennsylvanians from the damage done by mining. Acid mine pollution destroys our streams throughout the state, and coal refuse piles and underground mines continue to wreak havoc around the state. Yet DEP has failed to require companies to post bonds sufficient to clean up the mess, with more than $1 billion in un-funded cleanups. One of the most egregious examples is the damage being left behind by LTV. LTV has been in an out of bankruptcy for 15 years, yet it has only reserved $2.1 million for treating the damage caused by its coal refuse piles and mines. So the taxpayers will be left footing the bill, while the environment and public health suffers.

Given all this, you won’t be surprised to learn that Pennsylvania occupies national leadership in the pollution hall of shame. We are number one in the problem of combined sewer overflows, where raw sewage is dumped into streams, rivers, and wells when rain hits; we are home to the two largest mercury polluters in the nation; our rain is 100 times more acidic than clean rain; we produce more of the gases that cause global warming than 83 countries; and we have the nation’s fifth highest rate of sprawl.

So that’s why we are hoping for a fresh start in January, when the new governor takes office. But not all of our work deals with the government. And tomorrow I’ll talk about how we are working with some new coalition partners — and using new approaches — to take the fight for the environment to every Pennsylvanian.

Friday, 13 Dec 2002

HARRISBURG, Penn.

You might think that everything PennFuture does is centered around the state government and the state capitol. But that is far from the truth; we have offices in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia as well as Harrisburg, and our staff travels throughout the state. We are involved in an amazing number of areas and issues and we are always working to bring new coalition partners to the table and involve more and more citizens.

One way we do this is by talking about the environment in many ways. For too long, our opponents have been able to stereotype environmentalists as Birkenstock-wearing, granola-eating, humorless extremists. But environmental activists come in all different stripes and political persuasions, and support for environmental protection is a majority viewpoint. So we work very hard to make sure that we always position the environment as central to the lives of all Pennsylvanians.

Another way we intervene successfully in the political debate is by directly refuting our opponents’ contentions. Despite all evidence to the contrary, these opponents continue to try to portray the need for a clean environment as antithetical to a robust economy. The truth is just the opposite — that a clean environment is a requirement for economic development. So we always explicitly link the environment and the economy in all of our work.

Our definition of the environment is also broader than the usual one — for us, the environment is everything that surrounds us, not just the natural world. Integral to this definition are issues of equity and justice, and we bring those concerns to all our work and all our outreach. Just today, as part of United Pennsylvanians, we were proud to lead the charge to demand that Sen. Trent Lott resign as Senate majority leader and that Pennsylvania’s own U.S. senators join our call for justice.

Because of new approaches and new relationships, we have been able to bring new constituencies to much of our work. We are reaching out to and involving the medical community, particularly on clean air issues. We have worked extensively with unions, cooperating whenever possible and working to form a long-lasting blue-green alliance. The hunting and fishing communities have been extremely supportive of our work to prevent development and highways from harming streams, wetlands, and gamelands. These partners have “hung tough” with us, even when they’ve come under political attack. And we work with businesses throughout the state and across the nation to bring the green energy promise to Pennsylvania through increased financing and bigger and better markets.

We’re also using new tools to make change. Every other week, we issue our “PennFuture Facts” by email, with the latest information and our take on issues affecting Pennsylvanians. On the alternating weeks, we email “E-Cubed,” a more technical newsletter on energy, the environment, and the economy. We have our own video — you can see a clip on our website — and an infomercial. We have just developed a statewide green links directory to create a one-stop shop for environmental organizations and actions. And we are just releasing next year’s CD-Rom calendar, business card, hot links, and screensaver, full of beautiful nature images to put your desktop in a green mood.

But not everything we do is serious. As Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” So we are dancing — and laughing — as we organize.

Just this year, when Farm Aid came to Pennsylvania, we greeted it with a not-so-subtle message about factory farms. When Vice President Dick Cheney came to Pittsburgh to try to sell his energy plan, we rented an airplane and flew over town with the message “Conservation Pays — Big Time!” During our April 15th event, “The Taxman Cometh,” we held a contest for the worst and best use of tax dollars. And of course, we sponsor luncheons, seminars, conferences, receptions, and parties at the drop of a hat!

Every time I think of the powerful forces we are facing, I also realize what a great community we have. With our own coalition partners, friends like Grist, and the support of the majority, I know we will succeed.