“Orange” Alert!

State officials have issued the first “Orange Air Quality Action Day” of 2013. That issuance is tied to ground-level ozone, a by-product of heat and air contaminants that can cause breathing difficulties for certain segments of the population including the elderly, infants and those with breathing-related maladies such as asthma or bronchitis.

The PA Department of Environmental Protection and its regional air quality partnerships issued the alert for the Lehigh Valley, Liberty-Clairton, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Susquehanna Valley areas.

The Lehigh Valley region is Berks, Lehigh and Northampton counties. The Susquehanna Valley region is Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon and York counties. The Philadelphia region is Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. The Pittsburgh region is Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties. The Liberty-Clairton region is the municipalities of Clairton, Glassport, Liberty, Lincoln and Port Vue, all in southeastern Allegheny County.

Residents are encouraged to help prevent high levels of ozone by voluntarily limiting certain activities during the peak heat hours of the day. In addition, carpooling or utilizing mass transit can cut down on the type of pollution that can cause ground-level ozone.


Chesapeake Bay Foundation Sounds Alarm on Susquehanna River

The smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River are sick.  Anglers have been finding diseased and dying fish in the Susquehanna for years and the smallmouth bass population is suffering.  “Smallmouth bass are the canary in the coal mine for the bay’s rivers,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation president Will Baker. 

The CBF has just released a 28-page report, which documents what they are calling a perfect storm of pollution, parasites and warming water temperatures. 

This graphic from the CBF report shows where diseased and dying smallmouth bass have been found.

This graphic from the CBF report shows where diseased and dying smallmouth bass have been found.

“In the Susquehanna River, especially, state and federal officials must move immediately to reduce pollution and to formally designate the river as impaired under the authority of the federal Clean Water Act,” Baker said on a Thursday conference call with reporters from throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.   

The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) did not designated the Susquehanna as impaired when it released its Integrated Waters report in January, but the agency is calling for a comprehensive, year-long study of the Susquehanna to conclusively determine what is ailing the smallmouth bass. 

But the CBF and Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission are calling on the federal Environmental Protection Agency to reverse the state’s decision based on its authority under the aforementioned Clean Water Act. 

Such a designation for a 98-mile stretch of the Susquehanna River, from Sunbury to the Maryland state line, would allow for the immediate implementation of an action plan.  As Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission executive director John Arway explained, they don’t want to be studying the river until the last fish dies.

Advocates Want Treatment, Not Just Testing of Susquehanna

The entire Susquehanna River basin will be the subject of extensive testing and sampling for the remainder of 2013.  The Department of Environmental Protection’s new 2013 Susquehanna River Sampling Plan calls for tests to be run on water quality, sediments, pesticides and fish.  It’s all in hopes of finally putting to rest the mystery surrounding diseased and dying smallmouth bass. 

The public can track the DEP’s ongoing analysis online.   

Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission executive director John Arway tells Radio PA the DEP’s plan recognizes the Susquehanna is sick and in need of study, but doesn’t do anything to start cleaning up the river. 

“We need to begin treating the river, we need to put a plan together to fix the river while we continue to do the kind of studies the DEP is proposing,” Arway says. 

Distressed smallmouth bass first started turning up in the Susquehanna in 2005, and while no exact cause has been pinpointed Arway says there are solid theories that can be acted upon now

For instance, Arway says, they’ve noticed high levels of nutrient runoff from farms and lawns.  “A lot of our soils were oversaturated with those nutrients and they’re getting into the river causing aquatic plants – the algae – to grow, which takes the oxygen out of the water and causes stress to the young bass that live in the river.”

“If you go to our boat launches… you’ll see maybe only one or two boat trailers when they used to be packed with boat trailers before,” Arway says, noting that some anglers refuse to fish the river anymore.  The Susquehanna River used to be a haven for smallmouth bass fishermen. 

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation had a similar reaction to the DEP’s 2013 Susquehanna River Sampling Plan. 

(photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service)

PA Coal Mines to Install Defibrillators

A new regulation, which will take effect next March, will require automated external defibrillators at all underground coal mines in Pennsylvania.  It calls for one near the mine’s entry, and one in each of the mine’s underground working sections.  Defibrillators are used to stabilize heart rhythms in the event of a heart attack. 

Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spokesman Kevin Sunday tells Radio PA that a citizen in southwestern Pennsylvania first brought the issue to the attention of the Board of Coal Mine Safety.  “Everyone was on board with it: the management, the labor and the state,” Sunday explains, “so we moved forward with all due speed and now we have a new regulation that is going to help save lives.”

This is a first-of-its kind regulation, according to Sunday, who says modern technology has now allowed such equipment to be safely stored in an underground mine. 

Pennsylvania’s historic 2008 Coal Mine Safety Act authorized the board to update its own health and safety regulations without waiting for the General Assembly to act. 

Pennsylvania has 36-underground bituminous coal mines, and Sunday says they’ve gone more than three years without any fatalities. 

(photo credit: American Heart Association)

Marking Ten Years since the Quecreek Mine Rescue

It’s hard for Bill Arnold to believe a decade has already passed.  He vividly recalls stepping outside to see why there were folks with flashlights walking around his Somerset County farm on July 24th, 2002.  That move made him the third person on the scene of what would later became a miraculous mine rescue.

Arnold thinks the world “miracle” is overused in today’s society, but tells Radio PA there’s no other way to describe the “9 for 9” Quecreek Mine rescue.  “This was a matter of life and death.”

Today, Arnold is humbled to be the caretaker of the rescue site and to serve as executive director of the nonprofit Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation.

Nine miners were trapped some 240-feet underground for four days that July.  The accident took place just months after, and miles away from the Flight 93 crash site in western Pennsylvania.  Arnold says, “It was a turning point in the hearts of Americans to realize that miracles still do happen, and we can do great things when we pull together for a united cause.”

The man leading the rescue ten years ago was Joe Sbaffoni, now the director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Mine Safety.  Sbaffoni says coal mine safety has improved greatly since Quecreek.  A 2009 law gave the Mine Safety Board the authority to update its own regulations as needed instead of waiting on lawmakers to respond, and Pennsylvania hasn’t had an underground mine fatality in more than three years.

“Things are going to happen.  I mean you’re dealing with Mother Nature, conditions change by the minute.  But if you do things you’re supposed to… always follow safe work practices, you’ve got a darn good chance of coming home at the end of each shift,” Sbaffoni says.  “That’s the number one goal.”

Saturday’s celebration ceremony will cap-off a week’s worth of anniversary events at the Quecreek Mine rescue site in Somerset, PA.  It’s also the day they will cut the ribbon on a brand new visitors’ center.  The site attracts more than 10,000 visitors a year.

DEP Starts Aerial Spraying for Black Fly Control

The state started black fly suppression spraying operations in several counties on April 9th.   Spraying usually begins in late April or early May, but it has started earlier this year.

Amanda Witman, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, says surveillance detected the flies a few weeks earlier, but that does not mean they’re out in increased numbers.   That’s what the spraying is intended to prevent, by targeting the larval stage of four types of black flies that are pests to humans.  

Spraying is scheduled for 44 waterways in 33 counties. Witman says they plan to cover 1500 stream miles, which is a little less than last year.

Witman says the spraying uses BTI, a naturally occurring bacterium, which degrades quickly in the environment and does not hurt the ecosystem.  It is sprayed from low-flying helicopters, and spraying operations depend on weather conditions.

Witman says people living along the waterways should be familiar with the program. It has been around for many years. It covers large rivers like parts of the Susquehanna, Delaware and Juniata as well as smaller streams.

Witman says if you’re new to an area and concerned about a low flying helicopter, there are ways to check whether spraying is scheduled for that day. DEP notifies local Emergency Management officials about any spraying activity.  You can also get more information about the Black Fly Suppression Program at DEP’s web site.

More Mosquito Activity in 2011

State and local officials have stepped up their West Nile virus surveillance efforts this summer, as mosquito samples have already tested positive in 39 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.  That’s up from 37-counties all of last year, and 33 counties in 2009.  “While we are seeing a similar number of positive samples, we are seeing it in a broader geographic area,” says Kevin Sunday with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).  He says it’s most likely due to heavy rains.  “Stagnant water that would collect after any rainfall is fertile breeding ground for mosquitoes.”

Since mosquitoes breed anywhere water can collect and become stagnant, Sunday says there are simple precautions you can take at home.  They include everything from cleaning clogged gutters to turning over any wheelbarrows that can collect water.  “So we encourage everyone to dump out any standing water on their property, to drill holes in the bottom of their recycling containers, if not already.” 

West Nile virus has been in the United States since at least 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  It affects the nervous system, and can result inflammation of the brain.  However, there have been no human cases of West Nile virus reported in Pennsylvania this year.    

The DEP reported numerous mosquito samples that tested positive last week.  They include Fayette County’s first positive test since 2005 and Tioga County’s first positive test since 2003.  Sunday says, “We are taking aggressive surveillance action across the state.”

Pennsylvania's West Nile Virus Map - 08/08/11

This DEP map shows where West Nile virus has been detected in 2011.