Management of environmental resources of all kinds evolve and mature as the decades pass. What we did forty years ago should seem woefully inadequate in 2016. While our region has made great strides on many of these fronts, our recycling would appear stuck in the 1980s. By contrast, we have made considerable progress in cleaning up our sewage, minimizing our industrial by-products and reducing the amount of toxins we generate. Disgusting as it may sound, sewage and industrial waste were once commonly piped or diverted directly into rivers.
Difficult as it may be to believe, this still happens in the poorest parts of the world. The damage to water supplies and disease that often results kills more than 3.5 million people every year. Countries with the will and resources to properly handle their sewage now pipe this stuff to treatment plants, making water-borne diseases like typhoid, dysentery and cholera almost unheard of in places like the United States.
Trash has undergone a similar evolution. Like sewage, the first goal was to get it away from the cities and people. The old open dumps, however, were especially awful places that caught fire, attracted massive numbers of rodents and leaked into nearby waterways. This gave rise to the landfill, a planned deposition area, excavated for the trash and then covered over. Though the early landfills were a big improvement over open dumps, they still produced liquid leachate that seeped into groundwater. Modern landfills are now required by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to be lined and leachate treated before being put back into public waterways.
The modern landfill also had more stringent daily cover requirements intended to reduce odor problems and animal intrusions. Yet even with these advances, landfills remained unpleasant places. Cynics fear they will leak and, even with landfill gas recovery systems, they give off the powerful greenhouse gas, methane, as organic waste decomposes. Recycling and composting became the next logical step in managing waste. Why throw it in a hole that stinks and requires expensive pollution controls when more than half the stuff we discard can be made into new products and packaging?
Just as a civic-minded person would never throw toxic chemicals in their school playground or flush their sewage into the neighbor's front yard, you'd think reasonable people would separate their trash. Yet even in good recycling communities, many recyclable materials end up in the trash. Subpar recycling communities are far worse. The national recycling magazine, Resource Recycling, summarized a study on data from recycling 17 programs. In those communities, they found that about half the recyclable material was recovered. The average household generated 866 pounds of recyclables, recycling 410 pounds each year.
Local processor and hauler data shows that the household recycling rate in our program is 232 pounds per household, or 37% of our recyclable material. Figures from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) show the program is in the bottom 15% of those with more than 15,000 people. That means that somewhere between the store and the recycling center, the average household is losing track of 634 pounds of recyclables every year. That might have been tolerable thirty years ago, but it seems unacceptable in 2016.
A summary of the data discussed in this article can be found here.
The worst of the "Rust Belt," Detroit and Flint, Michigan; Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio; Gary, Indiana; Patterson and Newark, New Jersey, are often mentioned among the most unpleasant and dangerous cities in America. Beyond high poverty and crime rates, many such communities are cursed by polluted air, poor water quality, a lack of green space, and high numbers of abandoned buildings of all sorts. Young people can't wait to get out of places like this and are instead drawn to safer, more livable communities that are also usually environmentally sustainable. Older folks are more likely to remain in these pleasant places even after retirement. Businesses find these good places to invest and talented people like to live and work there.
Sustainability goes far beyond the stereotype of attractive streetscapes, extensive parklands, tree lined streets and pristine creek sides. It's a lifestyle and a set of policies and programs that encourages ecological improvement, smart transportation, economic growth with small environmental footprints and encouragement of local, home-grown businesses. It is also not just a general preservation of natural resources but historic ones as well.
"Sustainability balances the relationship between ecological integrity, economic prosperity and social equity," explained Warwick Township Manager Dan Zimmerman at the Sustainable Pennsylvania conference in State College.
People are looking for good places to raise their kids, attractive neighborhoods, parks and other green spaces. They desire pleasant places to walk, run, ride their bike or float their kayak. They want good drinking water and affordable sewer and waste services. Vibrant cities and regions with these assets attract people, businesses and the economic opportunities that come with them.
Though manufacturing remains an important source of employment, the urban economy looks different than it did fifty years ago. This change has turned economic development upside down. It's not just about the availability of jobs. Great communities and regions attract both people and economic activity. The most "livable" towns and cities are characterized by a healthy and attractive local environment, the preservation of natural places and historic treasures and the presence of cultural and social activities.
Penn State's Public Radio station, WPSU, hosted a community forum here in Altoona as part of a state-wide Public Radio "Keystone Crossroads" in Fall 2014. The forum was intended to bring a better understanding of how "Pennsylvania's cities, large and small, can address their problems and fulfill their promise." Beyond fostering a dialog about our region, WPSU also hopes to discover what they can do as an important media outlet in the community. How can they raise awareness and bring a better understanding of the challenges confronting cities like Altoona?
More than sixty people attended and engaged in a spirited discussion about the problems and opportunities and how we might address them. Though many discussions centered on the importance of a safe community and educational opportunities for our children, environmental and related quality of life issues were also a big part of the dialog. Participants observed that good things were happening, yet they feared that forces were undermining many of those positive things in the community.
They valued the natural beauty of the region but voiced concern over the scenic blight that too often exists in the community. Several noted that they felt fortunate to have high quality drinking water supplies, but were concerned about the future of water systems. There was enthusiasm about our recycling program but frustration that it was not available in all the suburban communities. Participants appreciated the slower pace and lack of highway congestion but were disappointed that pedestrian, handicap and bicycle access was not better.
There was also a sense that we did not always look at ourselves as one unified community and that many of our challenges could be aggravated by that. Environmentally smart land development, coordinated bike and pedestrian planning, and cooperative efforts on environmental infrastructure (water, sewer, storm water and recycling) are much more likely to come together if we address them together.
Visit WPSU's Keystone Crossroads website for more. Check out Lancaster's Efforts or visit Sustainable Pennsylvania.
Strange things can happen when we mess with something that hasn't moved or changed in a quarter of a billion years. The recent rock slide behind Logan Town Centre marks the third notable environmental problem that has arisen on Brush and Bald Eagle Mountains since the completion of I-99. Two of the three have resulted in considerable expense to remediate, while the third was widely ignored since it was difficult to prove its cause.
The acid water contamination (from exposed iron pyrite rock) over Skytop near State College was the most newsworthy, adding a whopping $80 million dollars to an already expensive chunk of highway. Earlier in the construction process, well water supplies west of the interstate highway were also affected when the aquifers that supplied homeowners with water were "beheaded" or cutoff when the highway cuts were made into the side of Brush and Bald Eagle Mountains. The Brush and Bald Eagle ridges are actually geologically the same mountain and have two different names only because the Little Juniata River created a water gap in Tyrone. The ridge actually wraps around the end of Sinking Valley and is still called Brush Mountain on the opposite side of the valley. The rocks and slopes of all these mountains are nearly identical.
Brush Mountain is a plunging anticline. In simple English, that means that an upwardly folded bunch of rocks ends or plunges downward, in Brush Mountain's case just north of Hollidaysburg. Frankstown Road climbs up and over the southern end of the anticline. Like the rest of the Appalachian Mountain system, the 2,500 foot high Brush Mountain was once much larger than it is now. What we see today are stubs of what were Himalayan-sized peaks about 250 million years ago. A quarter billion years setting out in the weather will do that kind of damage, even to hard rocks.
The mountain has survived that test of time better than other rock formations because the Tuscarora Sandstone is so hard (and more resistant to erosion). If the Tuscarora and its surrounding rocks are left in place, they don't usually go anywhere and the water that passes through it flows uninterrupted. But because of the still relatively steep slopes, it does not take well to major earth moving. The eastern sides of the mountains (moving down into Sinking and Nittany Valleys) the rocks are closer to perpendicular to the surface. One of those rock layers contains rocks with iron and sulfur and once exposed they produce acidic runoff and groundwater.
On the Altoona side of the mountain, the rock layers run close to parallel to the surface and the water in the sandstone aquifer flows toward Altoona. When I-99 was first built, the road cut ripped apart the base of the Tuscarora formation, beheading the aquifer. This has long been visible at the cut at the Graizerville interchange but could also cause the failure of wells supplied by that rock formation. The same thing happened when Logan Town Centre was built and we can see this in the form of waterfalls behind the plaza during wet spells. The orientation of the rock layers also contributes to the likelihood of slides, since the rocks will slide on each other. Given the weight of those rocks above the plaza, it's easy to see why fractures and slides could occur. Once we understand the geologic forces at work, these occurrences don't seem quite so unexpected after all.
Many things help make us the people we become and to pursue the things we love. When we look back, we can often pinpoint particular events that are especially noteworthy in shaping our lives. The fortieth anniversary of one such event in my life occurs this weekend and it has an interesting connection to the beautiful landscapes of central Pennsylvania. Nearing the end of my freshman year in college in 1975, I had taken a bicycling class to meet one of my physical education requirements at Penn State Altoona. To get an A in Roddy Gerraughty's class, we had to complete a 100 mile ride from Altoona to beyond State College and back.
The 1975 Ride
Only a half dozen years removed from being one of the worst athletes in my junior high gym class, the bike had transformed me from a skinny, unathletic adolescent into a pretty fair rider. Despite my new found fitness, though, a ride of this length would be a new physiological experience. Like running a marathon, a hundred mile bike ride usually takes one beyond the normal stores of energy manufactured from carbohydrates. When they are exhausted, we start to metabolize fat and it is a much less efficient process. I understood this in theory but did not appreciate its real impact until I experienced it firsthand. The first 75 miles (before glycogen debt kicked in) reinforced why cycling was such an incredible sport. A foggy early morning climb of Brush Mountain to the Kettle Reservoir preceded a thrilling descent into Sinking Valley. It would be twenty miles through woodland and newly plowed farm fields until we'd climb the next notable hill, near the village of Seven Stars.
The morning warmed, turning into one of those spring days sliced from the edge of heaven. The bliss of a brisk descent, perfect weather, and the naivety that it will be all downhill lulled us into the false sense of pleasure that the entire day would be absent of pain or difficulty. We road along Spruce Creek for many miles, the unmistakable early morning smell of humid creek side air dominating our senses. We buzzed along at an uncommonly high speed with a lot less effort than usual thanks to the aerodynamic efficiency of riding in a group.
In the group were two riders, Ken Steel and Gary Kephart, I would ultimately ride with many thousands of miles over the next ten years. They were both incredible riders but I was especially struck by Steel's riding style. His pedal stroke appeared effortless though he seemed to be riding a bigger gear than anyone else in the group. Kephart, much shorter in stature but an incredibly gutsy rider, was the only other person that could really keep up with the elder Steel. The rest of us just hung on for dear life. The last quarter of the ride was, to that point in my cycling career, the toughest stretch I had ever ridden. The final miles were a roller coaster of torture on the hilly back roads that connected Graizerville, Bellwood and Altoona. But that really didn't matter, for I had discovered a most incredible way to see the countryside and the price I paid seemed to be a bargain that was tough to beat.
The 2015 Ride
When I mounted my bike forty years after that original ride I was struck both by how much had changed and how much was still the same. Interstate 99 did not exist in 1975, making a bike ride on any part of Pleasant Valley Boulevard a life-threatening experience in those days. As I climbed the mountain on Kettle Road, I recalled that road, too, was different, as it now crosses over the interstate. It didn't make the climb any easier in case you're wondering, just different. For all that had changed to that point, the rest of the ride up the mountain and down the other side was much as it was forty years ago. Despite a handful of new houses, most of the farms and the wooded mountain sides of the valley looked just like they did when I breezed through the valley at the end of my freshman year of college.
The incredibly scenic corner of Blair County has managed to keep its pastoral character and remain free of shopping plazas, billboards and traffic. The closest thing to gridlock happens when a driver has to slow for a bike or horse and buggy. Blessed with naturally fertile limestone soil, both Sinking Valley and the southern end of Nittany Valley have remained largely agricultural. This preservation has been made possible by the counties' farmland preservation efforts, a growing Mennonite population and the hard work of many traditional family farmers.
Near the village of Spruce Creek, my riding partner Zac Kephart and I road along the mainline of Norfolk Southern. (Conrail was in the midst of being organized when I road through here with Gary in 1975.) One of the most amazing man-made features on our route, the Pennsylvania Railroad's sandstone bridges and culverts, are still carrying trains across the creek more than a century and a half after they were built!
As we neared State College, the changes that had enveloped the region offered a stark contrast to the mostly unchanged landscape of the previous thirty miles. The farm fields south of town are now covered with car dealerships and housing developments. Though cursed by suburban sprawl, these communities have managed to handle much of that sprawl in a sensible way. Sign and billboard regulations prevent the commercial blight that so often plagues many suburbs. Street trees and sidewalks are typically found in front of even newer homes. Dedicated bike lanes took us through the busiest parts of town. But even here, development sometimes goes awry. We started back southward on Route 550 and were overwhelmed by an onslaught of traffic generated by the hundreds of houses built on this side of the valley in recent decades.
The trip gave me a chance to reflect upon the changes that have come to pass since my younger days. It also conjured up a flood of memories of two good friends that left us before their time and recollections of the beautiful places that we enjoyed together. Most importantly, it reminded me how fortunate I've been to experience both.
Americans take much in their lives for granted, especially when it comes to resources that we use, consume and sometimes abuse. Perhaps the most overlooked and underrated of those resources is water. In these parts, it's abundant and, when we take care of it, of high quality. Sometimes we forget we use water for far more than just drinking, cooking and washing. We swim in it, float on it, catch fish from it, wash stuff with it, grow things with it, wash things away with it, transport goods over it and use it to manufacture things we use every day. Sometimes we just like to look at it, listen to it or toss handfuls of it on ourselves to refresh us.
Important as it for so many things, we struggle to protect the surface watersheds and groundwater recharge areas from which we draw it. What's more, we let it runoff our fields, roads and parking lots too fast with too many nasty things in it. Our region is not immune from these challenges nor the apathy and ignorance that complicate them. But those in Blair County responsible for overseeing our water resources have taken steps and made real progress in reversing some of those trends.
The Altoona Water Authority's Source Water Protection Committee brings together a number of environmental professionals and dedicated volunteers to address the problems and work together to figure out regulatory challenges. The committee is led by the Altoona Water Authority, but the work done by the group goes far beyond the authority's reservoirs and treatment plants.
I stood aghast as I looked at the large container of trash near the front door. Inside the house things didn't look much better. A quarter of the front porch floor was gone and the basement floor below was covered in more trash. Five workers were bringing out what appeared to be a year's worth of trash, an armful at a time. This was not an abandoned house in Detroit, a bombed out building in Gaza or a shanty in Sudan. This was a house within a twenty minute drive of almost everyone reading this week's column.
Every day we hear more bad news about the world's most desperate – the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, the endless conflicts in the Mideast, the premature death of malnourished children in Haiti. We come to think that horrid living conditions should be restricted to the poorest parts of the world. Yet we find them far too frequently much closer to home. Such blight is not restricted to urban communities either. Rural places can be cursed with the same problems. They are sometimes more difficult to see in rural communities since larger properties may allow the problems to be hidden from plain view. But they are still there.
It would seem that the solutions to these dreadful situations should be within our grasp. But changing people's minds or their habits is never easy. A host of practical and legal barriers further complicate the struggle.
It is difficult to oppose historic preservation, environmental protection or community revitalization. Yet when it comes to our urban planning and downtown development, our practices and policies would seem to indicate exactly the opposite. The result has been the decay and depopulation of cities all across America. Detroit, MI may be the poster children for this phenomenon, but many other communities (of varied sizes) have fallen on hard times. Camden, New Jersey, just across the river from Philadelphia, is proof that medium sized cities can collapse, too. Cities have long been challenged by many struggles. Yet there have been many advantages to people living within close proximity to each other and many cities have managed to maintain a quality of life that attracts people to their community.
Why then do places like Detroit and Camden reach the point of near collapse? And why do places like Boulder, Colorado; Boise, Idaho; and Seattle, Washington always appear on the "Best Places to Live" lists? What can we do in Altoona and our nearby boroughs to push them toward Boise instead of Camden? Altoona and its environs, blessed with some of the same things that makes Boulder and Boise great places to live, are also cursed with a few of the things that make Camden a much less pleasant place. A number of local leaders (though still not enough) have come to recognize this and have taken action to push us in the right direction. Like natural ecosystems, our man-made environments are complicated places and the solutions to our problems are not simple. Among the many things that make a region more "livable" is the vibrancy of its geographic, social and economic center. A vibrant downtown is often the place where many of these things can come together.
Altoona leaders have realized this and are taking steps to recognize and address this and related issues. A consultant's report has explored how the downtown area might be revitalized, looking at the practical and financial considerations connected with recycling several downtown architectural treasures and the developing several other new projects. The report confirms there is potential to attract business and people to the downtown area while preserving and restoring buildings that testify to our rich history. The great challenge is that it will cost millions to make the dream come true. Before we discount the report as another pie-in-the-sky delusion, let's look at some success stories of similarly sized cities not so very far from home. Williamsport, PA has preserved many of its century old treasures along Millionaire Row while breathing life into its downtown. Staunton, Virginia has managed to preserve dozens of old downtown buildings, creating a place where people are eager to spend time and money.
Downtown vibrancy is important in smaller towns as well. Here in Blair County Hollidaysburg, Tyrone and Martinsburg particularly have proven that an investment in a downtown can make a community a better place to live and work. It may not be easy, simple or cheap but this report and these success stories prove that it's possible.
One of the reasons that I still live in Central Pennsylvania is because of its incredible natural beauty. On the boundary line that separates the folded Appalachian Ridge and Valley from the uplifted Appalachian Plateau, we have the opportunity to see the special landscapes unique to this geologic border. On the verge of fall foliage season, it is a great time to talk about some of the special places that we might visit and enjoy in the upcoming month and a half. As busy and complicated as life can be, we sometimes do not take the time to enjoy all that beauty up close. Though I have come to appreciate these places from the saddle of a bicycle, many of them can be enjoyed by foot, on horseback or even from the seat of your automobile.
The Horseshoe Curve and Glenwhite
Though many of us have made this trip many times, the best part of this trek is often overlooked. The ride along the reservoirs is a pretty one but the road beyond the Curve is extraordinary. The tree covered road runs along Glenwhite Run and goes through the now deserted village of Glenwhite. If you hike across the creek, you can actually see the remnants of the old coke ovens in the side of the hill.
It is easy to bicycle, horseback ride, drive or hike this entire route from Roots Crossing west of Bellwood to the village of Blandburg at the top of the Allegheny Front either on PA Route 865 or on the Bells Gap Trail. Like other roads ascending the edge of the plateau, Route 865 follows the creek that flows down the front. But the ride is often more shaded because the gorge is deeper than many others along the front. Though you miss the beauty of the valley on the trail, the vistas from the mountain side are among the very best in the region. The history of the trail, a railroad until the late thirties makes this adventure even more interesting.
A great view and more fascinating history make the ascent (or descent) of Juniata Gap an interesting and inspiring adventure, too. The site of a 60 room hotel built in 1890, a narrow gauge railroad was built to carry guests from Altoona to the resort. Though the hotel burned down thirteen years after it was built, a pond still visible from the road was used for ice skating for many years. It is also possible to hike or cross country ski the old railroad bed, which is still easy to spot from the road near the spring just east of Skyline Drive.
Blue Knob State Park
Whether you get there from the Newry side or you make the climb from Pavia in Bedford County, this is a beautiful ride through some of the highest elevations in Blair County. In fact, the eastern continental divide (that divides Atlantic drainage from Gulf of Mexico runoff) is just a few miles west on PA Route 164. Whatever way you choose to see them, be sure to get out and fully appreciate these truly majestic landscapes.