Editorials from around Pennsylvania:
THE FLINT CATASTROPHE SHOWS HOW ESSENTIAL IT IS THAT OUR DRINKING WATER BE SAFE, Jan. 25
Think about how many times a day you go to your bathroom or kitchen sink and turn on the water.
To brush your teeth. To wash your face. To shower. To bathe a child. To rinse off a baby's pacifier. To fill a cup. To wash a dish. To fill a teakettle or coffeemaker. To rinse a piece of fruit for a snack or vegetables for dinner. To wash your hands.
For months, Michigan and Flint officials told Flint residents that the brown and malodorous water coming from their taps was safe to use and drink.
When a team of researchers from Virginia Tech tested the water and found high levels of lead, officials with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality dismissed the results.
When a Flint pediatrician named Mona Hanna-Attisha conducted her own tests and found alarming levels of lead in her patients, state officials took issue with her findings and accused her of inciting panic. Not long after, they had to admit she was right.
Now, members of the Michigan National Guard are distributing bottles of water and filters to Flint residents. People are wondering if a spike in Legionnaires' disease cases in Flint is connected to the toxic drinking water.
And children who have been poisoned by lead face the possibility of a lifetime of consequences.
Adults are adversely affected, too— lead poisoning can lead to kidney problems, memory loss and other health issues —but as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns, children's bodies absorb more lead and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to its damaging effects.
As HealthyChildren.org, the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics, explains: "Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement."
Children with elevated lead levels are "more likely to have behavior problems, attention deficit and reading disabilities, and fail to graduate from high school, in addition to experiencing a host of other impairments to their developing cardiovascular, immune and endocrine systems," the academy says.
There is no safe level of lead exposure for children. And here's the truly horrible thing: Lead damage cannot be reversed.
The parents of Flint, understandably, are furious and terrified.
"I know that if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself that my kids' health could be at risk," President Barack Obama said last week.
We would be, too.
The lessons of Flint are many.
First and foremost, there's this: Poor and mostly minority communities such as Flint deserve the same level of concern for their safety as more affluent and majority white ones. Sadly, the impression left by this catastrophe is that the concern mostly was about cost-cutting, not public safety.
As many media outlets have reported, an anti-corrosive agent costing about $100 a day might have kept the city's pipes from leaching so much lead, but that measure wasn't taken.
The water was so bad that even General Motors stopped using it because it was rusting auto parts.
Safe, drinkable water is essential; having access to it is a basic human right.
The people of Flint were denied this necessity by an unresponsive governor, a penny-pinching emergency manager and a state Department of Environmental Quality that didn't want to face reality. Even the EPA failed to act as urgently as it should have; its regional administrator resigned Thursday.
The Flint crisis is a tragic reminder of the need to ensure the safety of our water, and the need for government at all levels to make the health of citizens— all citizens —the priority.
GAS INDUSTRY GUIDELINES A BREATH OF FRESH AIR, Jan. 20
There are any number of quality-of-life items Pennsylvania— midstate in particular —could brag about. Air quality ain't one of them. So Gov. Tom Wolf and his environmental team are on the right path with last week's much-needed if overdue proposals aimed at reducing methane emissions from hydrofracking practices in the Commonwealth.
"Overdue" because, as PennLive/The Patriot-News' Candy Woodall has reported in exhaustive detail, state leaders let eagerness to tap into the promised riches of the Marcellus Shale distract them (to put it charitably) from putting in place adequate environmental protection measures.
The Department of Environmental Protection's history of turning a blind eye to gas and wastewater leaks at drilling sites, while letting energy companies largely police themselves, was a recipe for environmental degradation.
"Much needed" because the shoddy oversight is among the contributors to the state's dubious dishonor of having some of the worst air quality conditions in the country— particularly at and around natural gas sites.
In fact, roughly 4 million state residents live in areas that exceed the national clean air standards for ozone levels, according to the Clean Air Council.
While some environmentalists would argue such a record merits shutting down drilling in the state entirely, Wolf is taking a more balanced approach, developing new guidelines and best practices to diminish the potential for leaks of methane— a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and a host of health problems.
Speaking of global warming, a report released by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the very day Wolf announced his new gas industry rules underlined why they're so badly needed.
Global temperatures rose dramatically for the second year in a row, making 2015 the hottest year in recorded history. Federal scientists say the spike, which also saw record warmth in 10 of the year's 12 months, was exacerbated by the warming effects El Nino but the underlying cause is the massive amounts of greenhouse gases that continue to spew into and remain trapped in the earth's atmosphere.
None of this was lost on Wolf, who said the new rules could help make Pennsylvania a national leader in the fight to slow or reverse climate change.
Frankly, Pennsylvania has a ways to go to rival California, which, under Gov. Jerry Brown has pursued a robust series of anti-climate change strategies: boosting renewable energy to 25 percent of its power supply, putting nearly half the nation's electric vehicles on the road, and introducing a sweeping cap-and-trade program to rein in polluters. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, state leaders have also begun preparing for the challenges of higher temperatures by steering development away from rising seas, creating drought-tolerant water supplies and reducing wildfire threats.
But Wolf is right to think big. And the targeted 40 percent reduction in methane emissions DEP Secretary John Quigley calls for would be a welcome improvement. Of course, that the DEP does not know exactly how much methane is being released is cause for concern. It's difficult to measure progress without a baseline.
The agency needs to quickly get a handle on monitoring.
Meanwhile, gas industry reps will no doubt kick and scream. They claim they have already worked to reduce methane emissions and that with the current global bust in gas prices the last thing they need are more regulations.
The industry is doubtless facing challenges but the suggestion that public safety and private profit can't coexist is specious.
Wolf's new rules have the state marching alongside the federal Department of Environmental Protection as it works to position the nation to meet emission reductions promised as part of the just-signed global treaty on climate change. Pennsylvania can, as Wolf suggested, set an example to other energy-producing states.
The move is timely, the goals laudable and the results, given the right follow-through, will be welcome.
SAVING GRACE: MORE WORKERS NEED ACCESS TO 401(K) ACCOUNTS, Jan. 27
With the old-fashioned company pension now an endangered species, what besides Social Security will support Americans in retirement?
For many, the answer is a 401(k). The retirement accounts are offered by employers, but workers decide how much money they want to save. The amount is deducted automatically from their paychecks on a pre-tax basis, meaning the savings are taxed only when later withdrawn from the account, typically during retirement. Workers have a say in how the plan administrator invests their savings, and employers have the option to contribute to their employees' accounts.
Given these advantages, many Americans swear by their 401(k), but not enough get the chance to have one. Too often it's because they work for small companies that can't afford the accounts' maintenance costs.
For that reason, President Barack Obama will ask Congress, as part of his 2017 budget proposal, to make it easier for small businesses to provide 401(k)s. The administration believes that half of the 31 million people who work for an employer with fewer than 50 workers don't have access to a retirement savings plan.
If lawmakers OK the president's plan, rules on 401(k)s will be relaxed so that small businesses, even in unrelated industries, will have an easier time forming multi-employer savings plans to bring down costs. Companies with existing plans will be encouraged to offer them to long-term, part-time workers, in the hopes that they, too, will save for the future. Not so helpful is the Obama provision to hand out tax credits to employers that add 401(k)s; despite the merits of greater personal savings, the government needs to keep a lid on revenue giveaways.
Last summer a Federal Reserve Board survey revealed a shocking statistic: One-third of American workers have no retirement savings. Since there's nothing Democratic or Republican about an empty passbook, lawmakers of both parties need to get behind efforts to help more workers save for themselves.
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
TOUGH ON CRIME TOUGH ON TAXPAYERS, Jan. 27
The very popular mandatory sentencing laws that went on the books 20 and 30 years ago might have made people feel more secure by putting more criminals behind bars. But the price for that peace of mind is staggering.
The United States now has the largest prison population in the world, with more than 2.2 million people behind bars, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics. Additionally, more than 4.7 million adults are on probation or parole. That's a total of 6.9 million adults under correctional supervision (probation, parole or prison), or about 2.8 percent (1 in 35) of the U.S. resident population.
The cost to keep all those people either locked up or under watch: $212 billion. That's what judicial, police and corrections expenditures added up to in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Our point? That's a lot of money and resources— in too many cases spent to confine people who either shouldn't be locked up or who are imprisoned for far too long. It's not only an injustice to the people serving the time, it's an injustice to the taxpayers footing the bill.
With that in mind, state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-17, who represents parts of Montgomery and Delaware counties, has introduced a bill to eliminate second-degree murder in Pennsylvania. The charge, also known as "felony murder," refers to homicides that occur during a felony, such as a rape or robbery. Conviction on the charge carries a mandatory life sentence without parole.
While many people doubtless believe life behind bars is an appropriate sentence for anybody whose criminal actions result in another person's death, Leach argues that lack of intent is a mitigating factor that should be taken into consideration. For example, Leach argues that a getaway driver who didn't know his bank robber accomplice had a gun should not get the same life term as the gunman who shot and killed a teller.
"We have way too many people in prison for way too long," Leach says. He's right about that.
Likewise, the cost to house people serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed as kids is much too great. The U.S. Supreme Court already has banned the misbegotten sentences in the future. Appropriately, the court circled back and has ruled that the decision should be applied retroactively.
So unjust are the sentences that the ruling produced rare agreement between the court's liberals and conservatives. The decision gives inmates currently serving the terms an opportunity to seek resentencing or parole.
Not surprisingly, Pennsylvania leads the nation with 482 inmates serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles. This includes a 78-year-old Graterford inmate convicted of a 1953 murder that occurred when he was just 15.
This man has already been in prison for 63 years. What further good could come of continued, costly incarceration in his case or the many others like it?
—The (Doylestown) Intelligencer
PELL GRANT: HOLD LINE ON INCREASE, Jan. 27
Federal student loan and grant programs have not made college more affordable.
They have merely provided billions of dollars in taxpayer money to help pay for it.
President Barack Obama wants to add $2 billion a year to that price tag by expanding the Pell Grant program. Congress should say no.
Pell grants already provide $29 billion a year in assistance to college students, with few, if any, strings attached to prod higher education to hold down costs.
Incredibly, part of Obama's idea is to pay grant recipients $300 to reward them if they take 15 or more credits' worth of work in a semester. Why not insist on that as a requirement for any assistance, unless special circumstances are involved?
Making college more affordable is a laudable, vital goal— but Obama's proposal would not do it.
Last summer, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan suggested the government should be paying more attention to whether students are getting their money's worth at colleges and universities.
Federal aid involving higher education should focus "on whether students are actually graduating in a timely way with a meaningful degree," he said.
Apparently Obama and liberals in Congress were not listening.
Duncan may well have had ideas such as the president's in mind when he suggested that current higher education policy is "merely finding better ways of paying for an unsustainable status quo."
—The Altoona Mirror