April 13, 2019
Bill Would Let Milk Tankers Use Highways in Snowstorms
Milk truckers could soon be freed from rules that keep them off Pennsylvania’s interstate highways during winter storms.
The rules, invoked for five storms between January and March, caused tankers to be rerouted onto secondary roads and made certain milk plants difficult to access.
State officials say the restrictions on truck traffic are needed to avoid massive jams that imperil motorists.
But Rep. Martin Causer, chairman of the House Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee, believes milk haulers need highway access to make timely deliveries of their perishable product.
He has introduced a bill to exempt haulers from the travel restrictions.
“Without any way to get their milk picked up and delivered to market, farmers may have no choice but to dump it, and that is the last thing our struggling dairy producers need,” Causer said.
The ag committee held a hearing on the bill on Wednesday at the Capitol.
Under protocols developed since 2016, leaders from several state agencies issue restrictions for specific interstates based on the severity of the storm.
The options — used only when the governor has declared a state of emergency — include speed reductions, a ban on empty and double trailers, and a full ban on commercial vehicles.
Winter storms have caused several hourslong interstate closures in Pennsylvania over the past decade or so, including a March 2018 snarl in the Poconos during which one person died and a baby was born.
The state decided to limit commercial vehicles because there aren’t enough emergency responders, especially in rural areas, to end the backups quickly.
“If it’s predictable, it’s preventable,” said David Padfield, acting director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
The presence of tractor trailers can slow down the reopening of a snowbound highway.
Special equipment is often needed to get big rigs dug out and moving again after they’ve been stopped for a long time, said Jonathan Fleming, a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation official who is part of issuing the travel restrictions.
Haulers contend they are better equipped than general freight carriers to tackle winter conditions.
Milk trucks are equipped with differential locks, tire chains and drivers who are used to farm lanes and poorly maintained back roads.
Most drivers would say the interstate is the easy part of their milk run, said Keith Spicher, a Belleville dairy farmer who owns a milk truck.
Heavy tankers also have better traction than empty trailers, and they can handle hills better than double trailers.
Travel restrictions make the drive to the processor more complicated.
Steve Diehl, of Diehl Trucking in Wayne County, sometimes delivers milk from northeastern Pennsylvania and southern New York to a plant in Reading.
It’s hard to make that trip without using interstates.
“It is a real burden on our business,” he said.
Shunting milk trucks off the interstates doesn’t make the haul easier on the drivers either.
Secondary roads often get less treatment and have more stop-and-go traffic than interstates, said Tom Daubert, who owns a Mifflin County milk hauling company.
By law, a load of milk can’t be stored in a farm’s bulk tank or the milk truck for days on end, so if a driver can’t complete the route, milk may get dumped.
“You don’t just turn the cows off,” Spicher said.
Spicher’s milk truck holds $8,500 worth of milk.
The travel restrictions are not tossed out willy-nilly.
Days in advance of a storm, officials from PennDOT, the state Emergency Management Agency and the State Police consult with meteorologists on the storm’s possible conditions and path. During the storm the team meets hourly.
The group also talks with other states to ensure trucks can keep moving when they cross state lines.
When they impose restrictions, the agencies try to give haulers enough time to make alternative plans, and they try to lift the ban as soon as it’s prudent, Fleming said.
The goal is to keep commerce moving while protecting lives.
Arguably, the travel restrictions worked. Pennsylvania had no major interstate closures from January to March, Fleming said.
Still, some people think the state went overboard in issuing vehicle restrictions, said Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Annville.
In 2008, the state created a snow-emergency exception that could apply to milk haulers.
But that directive, which focused on all workers deemed essential personnel, only applied when the governor closed all roads to all travel, including personal vehicles.
That’s only happened once since the rule was created, Padfield said.
Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, the Democratic committee chairman, asked if the travel restrictions could be fine-tuned as the storm develops to limit disruption.
Officials sometimes lifted restrictions when they’re confident the storm will pass by certain areas, but making too many changes would cause confusion, Padfield said.
In the meantime, flouting travel restrictions comes with a price.
Police issued 1,800 citations and 280 warnings related to commercial vehicle restrictions in January and February.
Those citations each come with a $300 fine.
Of course, even if milk trucks are allowed on the interstates, there will be rare storms that are so severe the trucks can’t get through.
Spicher, the farmer and hauler from Belleville, has dumped milk just twice in the last 30 years. Both cases involved more than 2 feet of snow and high wind.
“There was just no way to safely drive anywhere,” he said.
In most cases, though, haulers do what they can to make sure the milk gets picked up.
With winter driving restrictions looming, Centre County hauler Rick Bird said he picked up some milk early this year.
That meant picking up his Amish farmers’ milk on Sunday, when they observe the Sabbath.
It was a break from decades of company practice, but Bird said he didn’t know what else to do.
Rep. John Lawrence, R-West Grove, said he believes Causer’s bill has strong bipartisan support. Source
March 22, 2019
Wolf Plan Won’t Force Farmers Into Organic
Pennsylvania farmers would not be pushed to go organic under Gov. Tom Wolf’s ambitious plan for agriculture.
They would merely get some extra help if they want to join one of the state’s signature ag sectors.
“It’s voluntary to buy it. It’s voluntary to grow it. But you’ve got to figure out in the business plan whether that’s something you really want to pursue or not,” Ag Secretary Russell Redding said Wednesday during a joint hearing of the House and Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs committees.
Programs for organic farmers account for just $1.6 million of Wolf’s $24 million PA Farm Bill proposal.
But several lawmakers said farmer constituents have called them questioning the department’s motives.
Growers are worried the proposal will pit organic and conventional growers against each other, said Sen. Elder Vogel, chairman of the Senate committee.
Sen. Judith Schwank, the committee’s top Democrat, said she’s been asked, “Is that where we’re going? Is that the only thing we’re going to support?”
Those fears are unfounded, Redding said. The state remains supportive of both conventional and organic methods.
The PA Farm Bill was designed to encourage fledgling industries and build on the state’s strengths — including dairy, poultry, swine and, yes, organics.
Pennsylvania ranks second, behind only California, in total organic sales.
“One of the real blessings of Pennsylvania is we can accommodate all forms of production,” Redding said. “And where people see opportunities, they certainly ought to avail themselves of that.”
“There’s room for everyone at the table,” Shannon Powers, an Ag Department spokeswoman, reiterated in an interview late Wednesday.
The top priority of the Farm Bill organic initiative would be increasing technical assistance to help farmers during their transition to organic.
During that three-year period, farmers aren’t allowed to use the synthetic chemicals banned from organic production, but they don’t get the organic premium for their products either.
The Rodale Institute and Penn State Extension do offer technical assistance, but there just aren’t a lot of agronomists in the state who have expertise in the organic transition, Redding said.
The Farm Bill would also bolster organic research and marketing.
The proposed PA Preferred Organic program, for example, would combine the branding power of the USDA organic seal and the PA Preferred logo.
Financial assistance to farmers could also be part of the Farm Bill, though it’s not yet clear how great that demand would be, Redding said.
Despite the Wolf administration’s professedly benign intentions, skeptical farmers have been questioning the role of the organic initiative since the PA Farm Bill was rolled out at a Hershey farm back in February.
Responding to a farmer at the event, Wolf emphasized that the organic program was simply a way to help interested farmers seize a marketing opportunity.
“This is not an attempt to say, ‘OK, let’s just stop doing what we’re doing and start something else,’” he said.
Still, the organic question came up at a House Appropriations Committee hearing earlier this month before becoming a major topic of discussion this week.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Vogel wondered whether a state program was even the right strategy to help organic farmers.
“If the chicken people want organic soybeans, then go to the market and ask farmers to grow them, and pay them accordingly,” he said.
Pennsylvania Farm Bureau spokesman Mark O’Neill said his group hasn’t heard from farmers worried about the state pushing them into organic production.
Organic and conventional farming are both good, and the state just needs to treat them equally so all farmers can prosper, he said.
Certainly, farmers wouldn’t want to be forced into organic, but “I don’t think that’s the intent of any of this,” O’Neill said.
For those willing to follow the rules, organic farming in Pennsylvania could be appealing.
Organic livestock feed from the Midwest and Europe could easily be replaced with locally grown grain.
The Northeastern U.S. offers a huge market for organic food.
And of course, the high prices for organic often mean extra money in the farmer’s pocket.
“There’s folks who are very passionate about organic, you know, and there are folks who may be even of the opinion that it’s all just kind of a marketing gimmick,” said Rep. John Lawrence, R-West Grove. “But I think what’s undeniable is that consumers are looking for it, and consumers are willing to pay a premium price for it.”
Still Lawrence, like Redding, said it would be wrong to privilege one production method over another.
“It can’t be an either-or, like we’re either for traditional farming or for organic,” Lawrence said. “It’s got to be a both-and.” Source
March 12, 2019
Chesco, Delco lawmakers urge Wolf to halt Mariner pipeline operations
WEST CHESTER — Pennsylvania lawmakers representing 11 House and three Senatorial districts across Chester and Delaware counties have signed a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf asking him to impose a moratorium on the transmission of natural gas liquids products through the Mariner East pipeline system until the mandated protocols are in place for local responders to properly manage a pipeline emergency.
Chester County Emergency Services and local school districts along the pipeline, including Downingtown Area School District, Rose Tree Media School District and West Chester Area School District have requested Energy Transfer Partners’ subsidiary SPLP to provide its Emergency Response Plan for the Mariner East project, which the responders and school districts need to complete their comprehensive All Hazards Emergency Response Plans and fulfill their statutory requirements under Title 35 of state law.
The letter urges Wolf to preserve the health, welfare and safety of constituents who live, work and raise their families in the high-consequence areas of Chester and Delaware counties within the impact radius of Mariner East. The pipeline also runs through Berks County.
“We have pipelines currently transporting highly volatile products through our communities, and our local first responders are not able to adequately plan their emergency response or mitigate our risk because the operator has failed to cooperate with repeated requests for their Emergency Response Plan,” said state Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, D-Chester County. “Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco are risking a catastrophe, which is a criminal offense.
“I am grateful to my colleagues for their collaboration on this request. The bipartisan support for this moratorium underscores how important it is to take every possible step to ensure the safety of our communities and our first responders.”
The letter was signed by the following state representatives Rep. Steve Barrar, R-60 of Concord; Rep. Carolyn Comitta, D-156 of West Chester; Friel Otten, D-155 of West Whiteland; Rep. Kristine Howard, D-167; Rep. Tim Hennessey, R-26; Rep. John Lawrence, R-13; Rep. Chris Quinn, R-168 of Middletown; Christina Sappey, D-158; Rep. Melissa Shusterman, D-157; Rep. Dan Williams, D-74; and Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky, D-161, as well as state Sens. Andy Dinniman, D-19; Katie Muth, D-44; and Tim Kearney, D-26 of Swarthmore.
Mariner East spokesmen did not return a call for comment as yet.
The company is building and operating the controversial Mariner East project, transporting volatile liquid gases across the full width of Pennsylvania, from the Marcellus Shale region to a facility in Marcus Hook.
Residents have opposed the project for years, saying the pipeline never should have been routed through densely populated neighborhoods, in close proximity to schools and senior centers.
Mariner East 1, which is a decades old smaller pipe that has been retrofitted to carry the new materials, has been shut down for weeks since a sinkhole formed in a Chester County neighborhood for the second time.
Mariner East 2 came online the last week of December, albeit not in the form Energy Transfer originally proposed. Mariner East 2 was proposed as a 20-inch pipe, but because of constant delays and other problems, Energy Transfer plugged in a hybrid version of several smaller pipes to fill in the gaps. Completion of the full Mariner East 2 pipeline now likely will not take place until 2020.
Mariner East 2x remains under construction.
In February the state Department of Environmental Protection halted all permits for the Mariner East 2 project, saying Energy Transfer had failed to take proper actions after an accident that caused an explosion in western Pennsylvania.
Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan last month announced he was launching a criminal investigation into the construction of Mariner East 2, noting his belief that state officials had not adequately protected citizens rights and safety. He now is impaneling an investigative grand jury to hear testimony from witnesses and review documents.
February 27, 2019
GOP lawmakers spar with Secretary Topper on Farm Show, HealthChoices in budget hearing
The Pennsylvania state House Appropriations Committee hearing Wednesday on the Department of General Services (DGS) started contentiously.
State Rep. John Lawrence, R-West Grove, started the questioning of DGS Secretary Curt Topper by asking about the Farm Show financing agreement, which was the subject of combative talks last year between Republican lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration.
The complex agreement, which wasn’t approved by the legislature, used the Farm Show property to secure $200 million in revenue for the 2017-18 fiscal year budget. In return, the state will pay down the debt over the course of 29 years, with the total repayment amount expected to top $390 million.
The financing plan calls for an $88 million payment at the end of the term. Lawrence wanted to know if that could be paid down early and if the state could refinance at a rate lower than the current 5 percent. Topper reiterated that the deal was not a bond but that it could be refinanced.
“The Commonwealth is in a position where [Municipal Real Estate Funding] then holds all the cards and would have to agree to accept a lower interest rate,” Lawrence asked.
The two men disagreed whether the financing agreement was a “good deal,” and in a second round of questioning near the end of the hearing, Lawrence grilled Topper regarding the terms of the agreement that state DGS shall make the payment. If the lawmakers fail to appropriate funds, Lawrence asked, would DGS be in default on the deal?
Topper reminded lawmakers that every expenditure it makes is made through the State Treasury, as is the case with other state offices.
“So, if the treasury makes the payment is that a violation of the contract,” Topper said, who chided Lawrence for his “nonsensical” position.
Finally, the two bickered over what is covered in the deal. Topper told Lawrence it covers the Farm Show building and parking lot, but he said he did not know if it included adjacent lots.
“With all due respect, it astounds me you signed off on a $200 million deal, and you can’t tell me what the term ‘premises’ means in the deal,” Lawrence said.
Other Republican committee members focused their questioning on another contentious topic, the state’s Medicaid managed care initiative, called HealthChoices. The procurement process for it has led to multiple protests and rebids, with another round of proposals likely, although Topper did not know when the next solicitation might take place.
The GOP lawmakers said they feel most of the blame fell to the Department of Human Services, but since DGS oversees the procurement process in the state, it fell on Topper and his staff to be more involved in the matter.
“I’m looking at you for leadership on this,” state Rep. Keith Greiner, R-Lancaster, said. “How will you ensure that DHS follows the procurement code here in the future?”
DHS led the procurement process because it has the expertise necessary to score most of the proposal, Topper said. However, he told lawmakers that DGS officials would be more involved in the process.
Like lawmakers, Topper said he’s met with potential bidders about the program and that he wants to make sure it is an open and fair competition.
“I think it’s critical really for the integrity of the whole system that we get it right the next time,” he said. Source
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