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A Lifeline for Some Communities, Federal Cuts Pose Problems for EPA’s Superfund Program

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On a recent drive through the Northview neighborhood of Clarksburg, James Lachapelle surveyed what is left of the factory that was once the lifeblood of this blue-collar community in north central West Virginia.

Broken windows dot the dilapidated structure, which was once the Roland glass factory. Luscious green vines and trees almost obscure the piles of tires and other refuse.

Lachapelle has lived here his entire life. His grandfather, father and brother all worked at the glass factory.

“I grew up with that factory there and never had one worry about,” he said. “I mean we just grew up [thinking] ‘OK, that’s just the way it was,’ but as you got older and the factory collapsed, then you started worrying when are they going to clean this mess up?”

Over the years, the city of Clarksburg and state and federal regulators have made efforts to rehabilitate the property, which was also home to a zinc plant in the early 1900s. Today, the area is home to a warehouse and tire retailer. But as the years passed, the area has largely fallen into disrepair.

Two years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency said it was going to take over cleanup of the site through its Superfund program after concerns surfaced that a nearby rail trail might be contaminated with lead, zinc and arsenic from the factories and leaching into the North Fork River.

After extensive testing, the EPA determined the extent of the contamination qualified the area to be listed on the Superfund National Priorities List, which is basically the EPA’s “to-do” list when it comes to funding cleanups. Sites on the NPL, as it is often called, take precedence.

James Lachapelle stands in the Northview neighborhood of Clarksburg. Lachapelle lives about a block away from the Superfund site.
CREDIT BRITTANY PATTERSON / WEST VIRGINIA PUBLIC BROADCASTING

Lachapelle was excited. But at a community meeting hosted by the EPA in 2016, officials outlined a 5-25 year timeline for completing the cleanup. That tapered the 68-year-old’s expectations.

“EPA, I love you to death,” he said. “I’m glad you’re looking, but 25 years, it’s just a might long.”

Lachapelle’s concerns mirror those of some who live near the more than 2,100 Superfund sites across the country. The federal cleanup program deals with the most toxic sites in America, but since being established in 1980, federal resources for Superfund have shrunk considerably.

As a result, the average time it takes to complete a cleanup under the program has lengthened. From 1986 to 1989, projects were finished, on average, about four years after a site was placed on the NPL. By 1996, the average time was nearly 11 years, according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.

Former EPA officials and environmental groups say less resources for Superfund ultimately harms the communities that live near them.

“Every dollar taken away from that program means compromising public health, increasing the risk of disease as well as delaying economic recovery and job recovery for communities that need it the most,” said Mathy Stanislaus, who ran the Superfund program under the Obama administration.”

Still, for some communities, like Clarksburg and Minden, in Fayette County, the perception remains that receiving a Superfund designation, and especially being placed on the National Priorities List, is better than not.

‘Fortunate’ to be Listed

Assistant city manager Anthony Bellotte is the city’s point person for the Superfund site.

A lifelong resident of the Northview neighborhood, Bellotte has spent 44 years working for the city. He remembers the days when the neighborhood hummed with life, infused with jobs not just from the factory that now crumbles on North 25th street, but a handful that operated in the city.

“The site itself … it was a rather large factory,” he said. “There was a swinging bridge across the West Fork River and on the other side of the swinging bridge there was another factory called Adamston Flat. There were a lot of the older fellows that lived in Adamston and walked across the bridge and worked at Roland and then the guys at Northview walked across the bridge and worked at Adamston.”

Speaking from inside the handsome city hall building in downtown Clarksburg, Bellotte said even though it takes years to clean up the old glass and zinc factory site, EPA’s decision to place the site on the National Priorities List was “fortunate.”

He said if the site had not been added to the Superfund program’s National Priorities List, the city may have been on the hook to deal with the contamination.

“We do feel very fortunate and this will ultimately end up with some cleanup and as a result of the cleanup it all goes toward future economic development,” he said.

The remains of the glass factory, which is now part of an EPA Superfund site in Clarksburg, WV.
CREDIT BRITTANY PATTERSON / WEST VIRGINIA PUBLIC BROADCASTING

With the help of another federal cleanup program run by the EPA called the Brownfields program, Clarksburg has cleaned up the Adamston glass factory, as well as two other contaminated sites.

With the Brownfields program, the EPA provides grants and technical assistance to communities to help them clean up a site. Local or state governments must pitch in a percentage of the costs to qualify.

Superfund was created to address the most toxic, contaminated sites across America. In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, which established the Superfund.

The law tasks EPA with determining how contaminated a site is and then determining how best to clean up the hazardous waste. Sometimes that can mean working with the site’s owner, or responsible party, to do a cleanup. Other times, the EPA pays for it themselves.

There are 243 Superfund sites on the NPL across Appalachia; 10, including the one in Clarksburg, are located in West Virginia.

Superfund sites on EPA’s National Priorities List.
CREDIT SHAYLA KLEIN / WEST VIRGINIA PUBLIC BROADCASTING

Getting a spot on the National Priorities List does not mean help will come quickly, said John Hando, who worked for the West Virginia DEP for 20 years as a hazardous waste inspector, which brought him in close contact with many of the state’s Superfund sites.

Hando said West Virginia has a long history of supporting the war efforts associated with WWII and Vietnam. The state also has an early history in manufacturing. Those two elements have contributed to the type of sites listed under Superfund in West Virginia today.

Early on Superfund was successful in West Virginia.

“In the late 80s, you had, across West Virginia, lots of sites the state knew about and, of course, the U.S. EPA knew about,” he said. “So, you had actions taken on the Ordnance Works site here in Morgantown. You had what was called the Leetown Pesticide Site out in the Eastern Panhandle. You had another Ordnance Works in the southern part of the state. Those were actions taken as soon as EPA could.”

Hando said Superfund is great tool the federal government can use to prompt action from companies that own contaminated sites. It’s often the only option for clean ups for sites where the “responsible party” has gone out of business, no longer exists or does not have the means to deal with the contamination.

Shrinking Resources

In the last two decades, federal resources have shrunk, which advocates say dilutes the ability of the EPA to both successfully and quickly finish cleanups.

Superfund gets its money from two pots — Congressional appropriations and, until about two decades ago, a tax on petroleum and chemical industries expire. Both sources are dwindling.

From 1999 through 2013, Congressional appropriations to the Superfund program were cut from $2 billion to about $1.1 billion, according to a 2015 Government Accountability Office report.

And in 1995, Congress let a “polluter pays” tax on petroleum and chemical industries expire.

That tax paid for the Superfund and provided resources for EPA to clean up “orphan sites” or sites where there is no responsible party.

In an interview, EPA Superfund site coordinator Melissa Linden said the agency did not feel declining funding affected its ability to run the program.

“I don’t see that would decrease our ability to take action,” she said. “It would make up reliant on prioritizing and potentially doing phased actions as we have in the past even on other larger sites.”

Former EPA officials disagree.

Christine Todd Whitman ran the EPA for three years under the George W. Bush Administration. During her time at the agency, one of her priorities was to push Congress to reauthorize the 1995 tax. She says the lapsed source of funding is affecting every aspect of the EPA’s ability to pursue new cleanups and advance ones already on the NPL.

“All that is very technical that takes time and it takes people and it’s expensive and if you’re running out of money you’re working on the sites you’re working on and taking on new sites becomes less inviting, shall we say,” she said. “They don’t have the money and they don’t have the personnel to do it. So, it takes longer and longer.”

Longer cleanup timelines affect those who live near Superfund sites. The EPA estimates approximately 53 million people live within 3 miles of a Superfund site, approximately 16 percent of the U.S. population.

Studies show communities that live near Superfund sites often find the value of their home decreases. Even after a cleanup, it’s less likely property values will rebound.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said removing sites from Superfund is a priority for the administration. The agency says it is doing that by enlisting the help of a task force and holding more responsible parties accountable for cleanups.

But in its first budget request to Congress, the White House proposed slashing Superfund’s budget by about 25 percent. Congress ultimately rejected the cuts and the agency didn’t ask for major cuts in its fiscal 2019 budget request.

Stanislaus, who oversaw the Superfund program under the Obama administration, said prioritizing Superfund would look like requesting significantly more resources.

“There are a tremendous amount of success stories, but those success stories require commitment of resources for the cleanup and commitment for support for the staff,” he said. “Frankly from my perspective, neither of that is occurring today.”

This story is part of an episode of Inside Appalachia. You can check out more of our coverage of Superfund sites in Appalachia here

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Appalachia

Rural’s Connection to Environment Means Bigger Climate-Change Impact

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Mainstays of rural American culture and economy – such as timber, agriculture, tourism, ranching, hunting, fishing, winter sports – could see major disruptions from climate change. The impact will be big enough to disrupt the national economy, a federal report says.

Rural communities face clear economic and environmental risks from a changing climate, according to the 2018 National Climate Assessment.  

The report documents changes in the timing of seasons, temperature fluctuations, increased incidence of extreme weather and change in rainfall – all patterns with the potential disrupt rural economic activities.  

Climate change in rural communities poses an outsized risk to the national economy, the report says. 

Although the majority of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, most of the country is still classified as rural. In this map, counties are classified as rural if they do not include any cities with populations of 50,000 or more. (Figure source: USDA Economic Research Service).

“Rural America’s importance to the country’s economic and social well-being is disproportionate to its population, as rural areas provide natural resources that much of the rest of the United States depends on for food, energy, water, forests, recreation, national character, and quality of life,” the report stated.  

While not all regions face the same impacts due to increased greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, the assessment explains how increased volumes of carbon, methane and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere will lead to changing climatic patterns. The report’s authors predict that changes will likely increase volatility in agricultural commodity markets, shift plant and animal ranges, increase the number and intensity of droughts and floods, and increase the number and size of wildfires throughout the rural landscape.  

Tourism is often climate-dependent as well as seasonally dependent. Increasing heat and humidity – projected for summers in the Midwest, Southeast, and parts of the Southwest by mid-century (compared to the period 1961-1990) – is likely to create unfavorable conditions for summertime outdoor recreation and tourism activity. The figures illustrate projected changes in climatic attractiveness (based on maximum daily temperature and minimum daily relative humidity, average daily temperature and relative humidity, precipitation, sunshine, and wind speed) in July for much of North America. In the coming century, the distribution of these conditions is projected to shift from acceptable to unfavorable across most of the southern Midwest and a portion of the Southeast, and from very good or good to acceptable conditions in northern portions of the Midwest, under a high emissions scenario. (Source: National Climate Assessment).

For portions of rural America with an economy based on agriculture, climate scientists are most worried about shifting geographic suitability of particular crops and abnormal timing for planting and harvest. These changes may result in additional use of herbicides and pesticides, which could create additional health risks from chemical applications. Crop and pasture yields and profitability could also be affected by changes in rainfall, temperature and extreme weather events. Increased flooding could increase soil erosion and water pollution from agricultural runoff, according to the report.  

Rural communities with an economy based on recreation and tourism also face significant challenges due to climate change, according to the report. Rising seas could damage rural Florida’s multi-billion dollar recreational fishing sector and cause further ecological damage to the Everglades region.  

Coastal erosion and rising oceans throughout the nation could affect wildlife habitat, disrupting hunting, fishing, bird watching, and other wildlife-related activities. 

Rural places with significant winter recreation activities could face risks as snow-pack is expected to decrease.  

Forest-dependent rural communities are likely to face significant change as well. Forest geographies and species composition are likely to shift as the climate changes. The number of pests and disease will increase. These factors could decrease timber and pulp harvests in some places. Forest fires are also expected to continue to increase in number, intensity and cost.  

The report identifies certain demographic trends in rural communities that make climate change adaptation more difficult.  

“Modern rural populations are generally older, less affluent, and less educated than their urban counterparts. Rural areas are characterized by higher unemployment, more dependence on government transfer payments, less diversified economies, and fewer social and economic resources needed for resilience in the face of major changes,” the report states. That combination of an aging population with higher poverty rates increases vulnerability of rural people and places to changes in climate.  

“Emergency management, energy use and distribution systems, transportation and infrastructure planning, and public health will all be affected,” the study states. State, regional, local and tribal governments in rural communities tend to be under-funded and rely heavily on volunteers.  

“Even in communities where there is increasing awareness of climate change and interest in comprehensive adaptation planning, lack of funding, human resources, access to information, training, and expertise provide significant barriers for many rural communities,” the report concludes. 

This report is the fourth National Climate Assessment, and summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States. The report process was established by the Global Change Research Act of 1990 and mandates that the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) deliver a report to Congress and the president no less than every four years.  

A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee developed the report. Scientists and researchers from federal, state and local governments, tribes and Indigenous communities, national laboratories, universities, and the private sector volunteered their time to produce the assessment. Information was gathered through a series of regional engagement workshops that reached more than 1,000 individuals in over 40 cities. Listening sessions, webinars and public comment periods also provided valuable input.  

This article was originally published by Daily Yonder.

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When Losing 14 to 1 is a Win — Sort Of

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Matthew Ferrence is a writer and college professor who ran a 14-day write-in campaign against an unopposed Pennsylvania state legislator. He got clobbered but finds something positive in the results. Photo: submitted by the author
A last-minute write-in campaign against an unopposed Pennsylvania state representative yielded 900 official votes. It wasn’t nearly enough to win, but it was enough to show that there’s more to Appalachia than the average TV pundit claims.
Well, I didn’t win. Let’s get that out of the way.But on the night of November 6th, 2018, after launching a last-minute zero-budget Green Party write-in campaign against an unopposed Republican incumbent, in a Pennsylvania district that perpetually votes at about a 70 percent clip for even Republicans who get absolutely blasted in statewide races (see: gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner, soundly defeated by Tom Wolfe), I wound up making a nearly 5 percent dent.

The how isn’t quite as important as they why, I think, but in brief: exactly two weeks before the election, I announced on Facebook my intention to mount a write-in campaign for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, disgusted that for the fourth time in seven elections, the local incumbent — Brad Roae — faced literally no competition. Nobody squared off against him in the Republican primary and nobody ran on the Democratic ticket. In fact, only twice in his tenure has he faced opposition from Democrats, each of them throttled to the tune of 60-40 or thereabouts in the general election.

As an even sorrier indication of the state of political engagement in the rural part of Northwestern Pennsylvania where I live, only once has a Republican ever challenged him in a primary. It’s smooth sailing every two years, which leads to a tepid, basic and uninspiring legislative track record. Taxes are bad, he says. And, oh, let’s have some laws to weaken environmental protections for gas well drilling. He has made public media posts that appear to equate school boards to Hitler, and he has argued that state funding shouldn’t support students who major in “poetry or some other pre-Walmart major.”

Yeah, that’s who I lost to, my 900 votes or so to his 13,000. And that’s the guy who has gone to Harrisburg for more than a decade representing my home. Among the many things that gall me about his incumbency is the way that, outside of Appalachia, a lot of people would probably nod their heads and say, yup. Brad Roae is the kind of representative people think Appalachia embraces, is the kind of person so many non-Appalachians see as purely representative of who we are and what we stand for.

But here’s the thing. I’m finding hope in my two weeks as a candidate, and in the sudden flurry of interest and support. I ran because there had to be some opposition for democracy to have any chance at all, and when I did so I hoped I’d get 1 or 2 percent, not embarrass myself, shoot for the bar of 300 votes. That would be the same number of votes I would have needed as signatures to get on the ballot had I, say, planned ahead.

Then a funny thing happened. I started making videos introducing myself and my ideas, and put together a platform paper, and people started sharing these materials on Facebook, and I had to work through the anti-Russian Bot regulations the social media site now has so I could finally “boost” two of those posts on the morning of the election, and even before all that the organic sharing of an electorate dying for something, anything, that pushed against Appalachian political stereotypes meant 9,000 people had seen my stuff. Then, even though people had to first know I was running and then actually bother typing my name in, I fared okay. I earned about 65 votes for each day of my campaign. And I spent $50 on stickers, $20 on my Facebook ads.

Brad Roae poses in the Pennsylvania House chamber with Pennsylvania dairy princess LeeAnn Kapanick. Roae has represented the 6th House district since 2007. The district covers parts of Crawford and Erie counties in the state’s northwest corner. Photo: Pennsylvania State Legislature webpage

Official county returns compiled right before Thanksgiving gave me 851 votes. The Monday following, I reviewed the official computations and found another 60+, if I include misspellings like Matt Terrance and, Michael Ferrence, and Matthew Fetterman (for a voter who maybe confused me with our Democratic Lt. Governor candidate John Fetterman), and That Guy Whose Name Starts With F, as well as The Guy on Facebook Ask (name redacted), as well as a litany of close-but-no-cigar last names coupled with Matt or Matthew: Ferrer, Ferraro, Fetter, Farreah, Ferrenc, Ferrous, Ferris, Ferentz, Ferrick, and DeFerence. I got 14 votes in neighboring state districts, and four votes for the U.S. House Race. Among other write-ins, I beat a slew of names that received a single vote or a handful, tough competitors like Brad Roae (who a few people wrote in, even though he was on the ballot), Stephen Colbert, Anyone But Him, Anyone Else, Jesus, God, and Red Breasted Nuthatch.

Look, my day job is writing and teaching. I’m a professor at a small liberal arts college, chair of the Department of English, writer and teacher of creative nonfiction. I was born in southwestern Pennsylvania, among the played out coal fields and strip mines an hour east of Pittsburgh. I earned a Ph.D. at West Virginia University, where I specialized in Appalachian literature. I wrote a memoir about my brain tumor, and the geology of the Allegheny Plateau, and the curious exile of inhabiting the weird position of Northern Appalachian, which means you’re not quite normal American and not quite Appalachian. None of that adds up to politician, but all of it adds up to frustration. I’ve spent most of my life, other than brief adult stints in Arizona and France, living in a region that skews way right, even as that right continues to exploit and degrade the people and place. All Appalachia ever has been allowed to be is exploited. That’s it. And that’s all the rhetoric of the GOP offers, when you boil it down. Let’s Make America Great Again, like when black lung wrecked lives on the regular and, newsflash, is now roaring back to life since the unions have been busted, and the economy of the region stayed busted, so the people crawled down into mines without the protections hard fought with blood and love by the striking workers of Blair Mountain, and the striking workers of Pittsburgh steel, and the striking auto workers of the Rust Belt.

Ferrence knocked on some doors and created a Facebook page to promote his campaign. He did several short videos to explain why he ran and discuss issues. Photo: Matthew Ferrence for PA House, District 6 Facebook page

Public historian Elizabeth Catte gets it right (she’s the author of “What You’re Getting Wrong about Appalachia”) when she argues that Appalachians have been socialists all along. They just don’t know it. They gathered together. They fought the power of industrial dominion. They powered America with their coal, yes, but they also fueled the national movement for respect and dignity for labor. Then the GOP figured out how to weaponize hatred and fear, and there you go. You get Joe Manchin, alleged Democrat. And you get a region that votes more than 2/3 for Trump and Trump-esque troglodytes like Pennsylvania’s GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner, who claims that global warming is probably just accumulated body heat from a larger human population or happens because the earth is getting closer to the sun, and campaigns by saying he’ll dance on the governor’s face while wearing golf spikes.

It boils down to this: I am so tired of waking up on November Wednesdays in Appalachia, seeing election results and, worse, national punditry that says this is all we are and all we’ll ever be. The election map of my state is bright red, other than around a few urban centers, just like most of Appalachia. That seems to translate to the same conclusion we get over and over and over again: dumb hillbillies voting for the worst. That conclusion seems to be supported by the simple math of our state politics, where more than half of state legislators run unopposed in their general elections, and our incumbency rate is about 90 percent. Few candidates ever put up a fight to change that.

So what’s an Appalachian creative writing professor to do? You run a last-ditch campaign. You tilt against the windmills in a manner that is both impotent (because you get crushed at the polls) and, at least for me, hopeful. Because having a choice, any choice, other than the incumbent mattered to the 2,000 people who either voted for me or tossed in a symbolic protest write-in. Because people stopped me when I walked by, and messaged me on Facebook, and were angry when they learned about the campaign only after they voted because, damn it, they couldn’t vote for the incumbent, and leaving it blank is just what the GOP has wanted for so long. The story of Appalachian politics has been about that blankness, a cultivation of the sense — and you can read this in almost every national outlet at some point in the last two years, usually with a quote from that faux-Appalachian pseudo-pundit J.D. Vance — that there’s nothing but right-wing fools in these hills and hollers. Appalachia is given up for dead again, this time just as a tarnished example of the hatred and backwardness of politics in this strange, strange land.

That’s just not how it is. That’s not the Appalachia I know nor the one I saw in my brief campaign. Heck, I ran this mini-campaign focused specifically on lefty sustainability, as in ecology and tree-hugging, as well as economies that stop repeating the boom-bust cycles of our past, and I drew a mighty good swipe of votes all at once, in the end. There are a lot of people in my county who believe in the value of the environment, and the necessity of fine educations, and the rightness of universal healthcare, and the imperative of social justice, and the glory of love in all its forms. There are progressives in these hills, you know. And a lot of them, but also a lot who hear those same old stories and worry about what the neighbors will think, so they don’t vote, or accept the inevitability of political monoculture. Thus the slam happens again. And again. And again. Unopposed Republican. Platforms of no taxes. Tacit acceptance of the Confederate Battle Flags that flutter on too many once-Union farmhouses.

Yeah, I got creamed. But I think we also won something that night. And we’ll keep coming back for more, riding a blue wave tinged with green, fighting for a change in the rural center of America that so many figure is lost forever. You know the joke, about Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and a lot of Alabama in between. Well, Alabama has a Democratic Senator, and so does Pennsylvania. We can do more, do better, push against the dogged stupidity of a right-wing cultural war that makes us all weaker and worse off. We can step into these races, and we can square off and say, hit me, and we can get hit, and eventually we can win. I know I’ll give it another shot – with my name printed on the ballot next time. I’ll need at least a couple of months next time, to get enough votes to be competitive, if history holds. But I’ll vow, and I hope others will too, that no one gets to run unopposed anymore. No one gets to spit out tired political bullshit and not get called out. This is our Appalachia too.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder

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Appalachia

There’s a Tool that Claims to Predict Potential for Criminal Behavior. Should PA Judges Use It?

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Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh. Photo: Connor Mulvaney/PublicSource

The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing is considering a “risk assessment” tool, which, according to social justice activists, would reinforce existing bias in the criminal justice system. But the tool’s designers say it would give judges more data to base sentencing decisions on as opposed to primarily relying on uniform guidelines.

The commission is hearing public feedback about the risk assessment tool on Thursday, Dec. 13, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at the Allegheny County Courthouse (436 Grant St., Pittsburgh).

How would the “risk assessment” tool work? Say you’re facing a criminal charge. In addition to the usual information about your present and past — as in the crime for which you are on trial and your prior record, if any — the judge also has a report trying to predict your future. On a scale from 0 to 18 points, an algorithm has indicated how likely you are to reoffend, based on data about recidivism rates.

Read more about how the risk assessment tool is used to calculate sentences from PublicSource.

This story was originally published by PublicSource based in Pittsburgh.

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