27 February 2012

Susquehanna River Basin Commission tries new public hearing tactic

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission held its first public hearing for oral testimony of water withdrawal applications on Feb.16. The Commission, an interstate watershed agency that manages the resources of the central Pennsylvania basin, previously heard from applicants the day of voting by the four-Commissioner panel.

The decision to split up the testimony and voting came after a disruption at the previous meeting on Dec. 15. That interruption came from multiple people at the hearing, applicants and members of the public, speaking out of turn. The goal of the separation was to create a safe and secure environment for the public to speak, as well as get through the agenda of hearing from the applicants, said Susan Obleski, the SRBC director of communications.

Opponents to the withdrawal of water from the Susquehanna River for hydrofracking attended both the Dec.15 meeting and the public hearing on Feb. 16. Their agenda was similar at both gatherings, said Nathan Sooy, the central Pennsylvania campaign organizer for Clean Water Action.

“We were calling for an immediate moratorium on water withdrawals for fracking until (the SRBC) has studied the cumulative impacts of it,” said Sooy. “By allowing these companies to pump water from the Susquehanna, the SRBC is not serving the interests of people along the river, which is part of their mandate.”

Guy Alsentzer, director of operations for Stewards of the Lower Susquehanna Inc. in York and staff attorney for the Lower Susquehanna River Keeper, attended both meetings.

“I’m glad the Commission took the opportunity to remedy the procedural decline at the Dec.15 meeting,” said Alsentzer. “All of the applications were approved off the record (on Dec.15) which was disappointing. We lost an element of public access to information to the commissioners because of the disruptions.”

The SRBC is in favor of economic development from hydrofracking, said Obleski. The Commission also benefits from application fees to withdrawal water which made up about 65 percent of the Commission’s budget in fiscal year 2011, Obleski wrote in an email.

The Commission requires an application for withdrawal “from gallon one” in an attempt to be conservative and protective of the environment in dealing with the new water use, wrote Obleski.

Sooy does not believe the SRBC is doing enough.

“The public is not involved the way it should be,” said Sooy. “There needs to be more transparency and less closed door deals.”

Obleski said the Commission is required to have a public hearing format. The minutes and webcast of the Feb. 16 hearing will be provided for the Commissioners who will vote on the applications at the March 15 meeting, but will not be available to the public, she said.

Sooy made a comparison to the Delaware River Basin Commission that recently prohibited water use for hydrofracking. The DRBC has multiple advisory committees that bring together leaders from companies, organizations, universities and the government to provide information for the commissioners, said Sooy.

“Citizens can sit on them, too,” he said. “The SRBC has no access other than the public hearings.”

York County does not have any Marcellus Shale formations, but is still affected by the impacts of hydrofracking, particularly along the Susquehanna River, said Alsentzer.

“If water levels and quality are degraded by the fracking companies while the SRBC sits in the unique position to regulate and study the impacts, they can no longer hold themselves aloof,” said Alsentzer.

There are four commissioners on the SRBC. One from N.Y., Pa. and Md., and one from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The state commissioners are appointed by the state’s governor, and the federal commissioner is designated by the President.

24 February 2012

Penn State bugs power batteries

    Researchers at Penn State University in State College say they have harnessed the power of some of nature’s smallest workers to create batteries.
    Professor Bruce Logan and his colleagues use bacteria to produce electricity. The batteries are called microbial fuel cells.
    Over the past decade, the technology slowly has been developing in engineering labs nationwide. This technology uses bacteria to extract energy from organic matter and release it as electrons.
    “It works like bacteria in our bodies,” said Logan. “Except, in humans, the electrons are sent to oxygen. In a microbial fuel cell, the bacteria are denied that easy conversion. They are forced to make electrodes.”
    The electrodes flow through the circuitry of the fuel cell, and that is electricity.
    At Penn State, Logan is involved in an ongoing project to collect bacteria from the campus’s wastewater treatment plant to run through the fuel cells.
    Logan’s research has estimated that 5 percent of the nation’s electrical demand goes to power wastewater treatment plants. If Logan’s project goes through, not only will the bacteria in the wastewater be breaking down the organic matter, it will be powering the rest of the plant — things like pumps, aerators and lights.
    Someday, Logan said, the 2.6 million gallons of wastewater that flows each day through the Penn State plant, could produce enough electricity to power 84 nearby homes.
    The recent challenge for Logan is finding the most cost effective systems for the microbial fuel cells.
    “We need to scale them up,” said Logan. “This is an emerging technology, and we need to learn how to deal with the electricity that is produced.”
    The fuel cells can only put out about half a volt, said Logan. In order to increase the voltage in a fuel-efficient way, there needs to be more research.
    “Right now, if we put more batteries together to get a higher voltage, they short each other out.”
    Logan is hoping for interest outside of the academic world. Within the electrical industry, there are few sources for alternative energy funding. Logan’s website lists various grants that he has been awarded for his microbial fuel cell research.

20 February 2012

Peace Corps Honduras alumna Sally Hoh

Sally Hoh spent two years up to her knees in mud while volunteering with the Peace Corps in Honduras from 1984 to 1986. As a freshwater fish outreach volunteer, it was her job to dig fish ponds and stock them with tilapia for the people of Jesus de Otoro to eat.

“When I went down there, no one from central Pennsylvania had ever heard of tilapia,” Hoh said, who graduated from Gettysburg College with a degree in Biology. The now popular staple in the grocery store freezer aisle was chosen for Hoh’s Honduran project for the same reasons it took off in the American diet two decades later.

“They grow fast and they’re nutritious,” said Hoh, who now works at York College in the Biology department.

Hoh remembers her years in Honduras fondly. She traveled safely throughout the country by bus and felt welcome in her village. Which is why the current turmoil ripping through the country hurts her even more.

According to the United Nations, Honduras now has the highest homicide rate in the world, four times that of Mexico. Governmental institutions are still strained from a 2009 coup. And because of this potential for danger, the Peace Corps pulled out all 158 of its volunteers from Honduras on Jan. 18.

“I called the Peace Corps and they wouldn’t tell me why they brought the volunteers home, just that ‘they have paused services while the agency reviews the safety and security of the country,’” said Hoh. “That’s the statement they sent me.”

Hoh acknowledges the country has likely changed and that it no longer seems to be the quiet, primitive life she experienced.

Hoh shared a house with two to four other volunteers who worked in her town. “We bought power from a generator from 6 to 9 p.m. every day,” said Hoh. “There was one phone at the police station and if the Peace Corps wanted to get a hold of us, they would send a telegram.”

There have been 5,750 volunteers in Honduras since 1962 with the Peace Corps.

“That’s a lot of good,” she said. “But the current volunteers who were in the middle of projects have had to abandon them.”

A prison fire in Comayagua, Honduras last week killed 357 people that burned and suffocated in their cells, the AP reported.

Andrew Coyle of the International Center for Prison Studies at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom told CNN that, nationwide, the Honduran prison system was overcrowded by 40 percent in 2010.

The U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs website states the high crime rate in Honduras is compounded by widespread poverty, street gang activity and drug trafficking.
 “It sounds to me like the Honduran government is trying to adjust to the high crime rates by strictly enforcing laws,” said Hoh.

That has likely taxed their prison system and led to overcrowding, which can make it hard to maintain order, said Hoh.
“What happened in Honduras isn’t that different than situations in the United States,” said Hoh, in response to the growing prison populations in the U.S. “And ignoring the differences can only make things worse.”

Students at York College interested in volunteering with the Peace Corps will approach Hoh with questions.

“Most tell me they’re apprehensive about delaying their adult lives by spending two years in the Peace Corps,” said Hoh. “What I tell them is that my adult life started with the Peace Corps.”

As a volunteer Hoh grew and enhanced her perspectives. She learned to look at the world as “less ‘us and them.’ We’re all one big ‘we’.”

“Even after 25 years, I still feel a strong connection to the people of Honduras.”

12 February 2012

Day One: Fail

Check out the bandanna. Courtesy of
For the next 40 days I will be observing myself, I guess. It's a self-indulgent and unnecessary challenge. Four hours a week I clean up my local yoga studio and in return I get free yoga. Good deal.

But the manager of the studio wanted all the teachers and volunteers to participate in a program called "40 days to a personal revolution". It follows a book written by an American yogi. His name is Baron Baptiste (I'll refer to him as BB). He wears a bandanna all the time, to ward off demons. (oh, BB). He thinks he has all the answers to cause a complete revolution in a person; a person he doesn't know and will never meet. That's pretty presumptuous of him, I think. I will take away his power by denying his "laws" of transformation (yeah, he made his owns laws, but I will get to those later).

I'm not against change. Or kicking bad habits. Or facilitating time for myself. All of those things are possible in the next 40 days. But any change I make or habit kicked or time taken, I have to share with the group. There's the real challenge, because I won't do that. I don't believe that growth is a group experience. I can become a whole new person in the privacy of my own self, thanks. 

Along with 20-or-so people, we will meet once a week and talk about our failures, our progress, blah blah blah. I don't believe it will work. But there you have it. I have already failed. By going into this process of "personal revolution" by running the other way, I hold the very potential to ruin it all.

So... Imma go for a jog.

02 February 2012

Safe Harbor open to climbing after more than a decade!

It's been a mild winter in south central PA, to say the least. A freak 10-hour storm dropped a few inches that stuck around a few days. But other than that, I would compare our January weather with the average March. Lame, as far as I'm concerned.

But, when January gives you sunny days in the 60s, it's best taken advantage of.

So my climbing friend Jen asked me to join her for a day at Safe Harbor in Conestoga Township in Lancaster County. I'd never been and was eager to learn about the new spot and get on some real rock.

Jen Smith preparing to rap off of Pro Bono (5.7)
Safe Harbor crag is a cliff line running along the Susquehanna River just to the south side of the Conestoga River confluence. (There is also a crag to the north of the confluence in Manor Township that is not yet reopened.) The cliff are not natural. According to, they were created in the early 20th century to extend the Pennsylvania Railroad. Although climbing along the railroad was probably occurring for decades, the real development of lines came in the mid-1970s by Tony Herr and Don Gallagher, two active Lancaster area climbers. 

Looking up at the line of cliffs, some sections rising 100 feet over the gravel path, I felt my fingers tingling. This was going to be a great day. The sun was shining, making the bolts of nearly a hundred routes glisten. We had the crag to ourselves. The only other climbers we could see were hundreds of feet away, enjoying another section.

Jen and I set up a rope on a slabbing 5.7 to warm up and get a feel for the style of Safe Harbor. Because the place of virtually vacant, we left the rope up some friends joining us later might want to run up it. The lack of climbers was not a lack of popularity, Jen told me. It was simply the fact of it being a Tuesday.

Eric Horst was a protege of Herr and Gallagher. Along with a few other climbers in their twenties, the group developed a handful of trad lines and toprope routes. As Horst writes on, climbers were never bothered by the landowners and were often entertainment for passing train engineers. 

Through the 1980s, the crag saw little growth in the number of climbers beyond the initial group. The rail line was deactivated in 1988 and the tracks were removed in 1989. Although most of the climbers from the 70s had moved on to different crags, Horst and Herr came back in the late-80s to take another look at Safe Harbor. With them they brought sport climbing, a new trend in vertical rock climbing that was just taking off.

A few hours into day, Jen and I met a fellow named Jerry who seemed to know his way around Safe Harbor. He told us about the progression of the crag from trad to sport. We found many rusted bolts throughout the day placed there a decade ago, but most of the lines were already sporting solid protection, an effort by Horst and his friends when the crag finally reopened.

In 1990, a few dozen bolted routes went up and with it came the climbers. Horst writes on that the number of climbers visiting Safe Harbor grew by the weekend. By 1991 more climbers (with drills) came and about 60 new sport routes. As Safe Harbor was the only sport crag within a six-hour drive of the major Mid-Atlantic cities, it saw a lot of traffic. That year also saw the early development of Safe Harbor North, the cliff lines just north along the river of original crag. About the same time, local municipalities and Amtrak -- the landowner -- started to get nervous.

Jen Smith setting her rack to lead Pro Bono.
This is a common problem for landowners in many states. The liability laws of our litigious society mean that even trespassers can sue for injury. It's not a risk many people are willing to take. But fortunately for all climbers in the area, the efforts of the locals who would not forget about Safe Harbor have brought this little gem back to life.

By 1992, the crag was famous. A feature article ran in Rock & Ice magazine in the fall. The newly formed Access Fund recommended Horst and his fellow climbers get the land designated for climbing as a recreational activity as soon as possible. 

It did not happen soon enough, however. In the mid-1990s, the local police made frequent stops at Safe Harbor and removed anyone found climbing, giving them fines for trespassing. That went on until 2004. 

When I asked Jerry about those forbidden years, he wouldn't say much. He admitted that many climbers were caught and told to leave. And that it wasn't a good idea back then to climb here. But when I asked if that really prevented locals from sending their favorite lines, all I got from Jerry was a expression trying not to smile.

In summer 2004, Lancaster County Parks acquired the land through eminent domain and allowed recreational climbing. That was extremely short-lived. By fall 2004, a state court overturned the eminent domain acquisition and gave the land back to Amtrak. Climbing was again off limits.

In 2009, the land was given to the surrounding townships, but climbing was still forbidden because of a concern of electrocution from the overhanging power lines. The lines have since been replaced by higher utility poles and moved about 15 feet away from the cliff lines. 

In early fall 2011, Conestoga Township voted to allow climbing once more at Safe Harbor. 

And thankfully they did, because my friends and I had a wonderful day.

** All historical information about Safe Harbor came from