Ex-Wilmington Trust president gets 6 years prison for fraud, conspiracy

The former president of the only financial institution criminally charged in connection with the federal bank bailout program has been sentenced to six years in prison for fraud and conspiracy.

Former Wilmington Trust president Robert Harra Jr. was sentenced Monday. He and three other bank officials were convicted in May of concealing the bank’s troubled condition from regulators and shareholders following the 2008 financial crisis.

Prosecutors were seeking a sentence of eight years, while Harra’s attorney asked for probation, citing his long history of community service.

The defendants were convicted of misleading regulators and investors about Wilmington Trust’s massive amount of past-due commercial real estate loans before the bank was hastily sold in 2011. The century-old bank imploded despite receiving $330 million from the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program.


Study raises questions about oversight of facilities that house foster youth in Pa.

Foster children who live in residential facilities in Pennsylvania suffered physical and verbal abuse in hundreds of documented cases between 2010 and 2018, according to a new report. The study found that at some facilities, which include group homes and larger institutions, violations continued to occur even after state inspectors recorded earlier instances of abuse.

Report co-author Elissa Glucksman Hyne considers the repeated violations “really alarming” because, she said, they show that children in foster care are “being maltreated by [facility] staff, and it seems nothing is done about it … It’s just business as usual, and nothing seems to happen.”

“No child should ever be removed from their home and then harmed in the places that they are supposed to be placed to be safe,” added Hyne, a senior policy analyst at the New York-based nonprofit, Children’s Rights. “If that happens, then we would hope that something is done about it.”

The inquiry was based on a sample of facilities located mostly in Philadelphia and central Pennsylvania, Hyne said. It included instances of abuse believed to have been committed by staff and other children, with staff accused in over 70 percent of cases.

Children’s Rights released the report with Pennsylvania’s Education Law Center last week, about a month after a separate study showed the state is more likely than the rest of the nation to place foster youth in residential facilities. According to that research, 47 percent of the Pennsylvania’s foster youths aged 14 to 21 live in these facilities, as opposed to with relatives or unrelated caretakers in a family setting. Nationally, 34 percent of foster youth live in residential placements.

In total, last week’s report said, more than 3,700 foster youth in Pennsylvania live in institutional settings, which “range in size from four-bed group homes to over 170-bed institutions.”

Dangers at these facilities, the report found, included physical injury as well as verbal threats of injury. At some facilities, Hyne said, staff punished children by choking them, grabbing them by their hair, and pulling their arms back to the point of pain. The study noted other cases where adults slapped, hit, or punched children.

Limited oversight information

These infractions are allowed to persist, the study found, “because [the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services] fails to adequately license and monitor residential placements in Pennsylvania.”

The department typically inspects facilities that house foster children at least once a year. The report’s authors found that, while inspectors report violations and review facilities’ subsequent correction plans, there’s scant evidence they follow-up to ensure compliance. Repeat violations, they added, further suggest the department does not provide enough oversight.

Spokesman Colin Day said the department is “engaged in a multi-year process” to improve its licensing process and that it plans to meet with the study’s authors.

But, he noted that his agency is “shortening timeframes for … licensing staff to act upon plan[s] of corrections submitted by providers. This also includes assuring timely verification of the plan of corrections.”

Day said the department is also working with the University of Pittsburgh to use predictive analytics “to identify struggling providers before actual harm occurs.”

What the research does and does not show

The findings in last week’s study were based on a sample of licensing compliance reports for nearly half of Pennsylvania’s 541 residential facilities. The reports, which are publicly available on the department’s website, span an eight-year period and number in the thousands, according to Hyne.

In total, the records show children at the sampled institutions were “physically maltreated” 156 times, “verbally maltreated” 43 times, and “exposed to inappropriate sexual contact” 73 times. Inspectors with the state’s Department of Human Services reported the abuse whether it was committed by staff or other children.

The data indicate that staff were responsible for three-quarters of the cases involving physical abuse, and all the cases of verbal abuse. They were about as likely as children to be accused of sexual misconduct.

While the study did not show how Pennsylvania compares to other states, it noted that the number of violations “is likely significantly higher than documented.” It is uncomfortable, the report said, for children to report trauma they experience at the hands of “authority figures who are in control of their living situation.”

Each of the 259 facilities reviewed belong to one of 36 separate legal entities. Within 44 percent of those entities, the study found, more than one violation for physical or sexual maltreatment was documented between 2010 to 2018.

The study acknowledged that it did not randomly select entities for review. Rather, it “focused primarily on facilities that house children from Philadelphia County because it has the largest population of children in foster care. It also “added facilities mentioned … by statewide stakeholders” and located in other counties.

Still, the authors contend that their findings “broadly reflect risks to which many children are exposed statewide as a result of [the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services] patterns and practices.”

Allegheny County, however, stood out as a bright spot in the report. The authors said it has reduced the number of children in congregate care, another term for 24-hour residential placements, by 60 percent between 2012 and 2017. Now, just 5 percent of Allegheny County foster youth live in residential facilities, according to the report.

The county has made such strides in part by “using residential facilities only for children whose needs require such restrictive placements,” said the report’s authors. Instead, the study said, it has placed an increasing number of children with relatives and switched to more community-based services.

“Ideally, that’s what should be happening in every county in the state,” said Hyne of Children’s Rights. “Some children, depending on their stage in the system or their level of need, they may require short placement in congregate care … But there should be a decrease in congregate care because children, at the heart of it, should be raised in families.”


Obamacare sabotage is in the news again? Seriously?!

If your head swiveled 360 degrees, Exorcist-style, after learning Friday that a federal judge in Texas had ruled Obamacare unconstitutional, I totally get it. You have every right to be confused. The U.S. Supreme Court, six years ago, gave the green light to Obamacare by a vote of 6-3, so what the heck is this going on here? Why is Donald Trump crowing on Twitter that a lower judge’s ruling is “great news for America”?

Before I dispel the confusion, it’s important to understand that the roughly 20 million Americans who benefit from Obamacare will continue to do so, because, for the foreseeable future and quite likely beyond, the previous president’s signature achievement ain’t going anywhere.

Trump may not know much about jurisprudence, or have a clue about how things work, but I do. Prominent conservative legal scholars believe that the sweeping decision by federal judge Reed O’Connor is absolutely bonkers. Jonathan Adler, who’s no fan of Obamacare, says that O’Connor went “down a rabbit hole,” using “questionable legal arguments to support a political agenda. This is not how judges are supposed to act.” He says the “shocking” ruling is a “sad day for the rile of law.” Even the conservative, Obamacare-hating Wall Street Journal editorial page says that the ruling “is likely to be overturned on appeal and may boomerang politically on Republicans.”

And why might it boomerang politically on Republicans? That’s an easy one. This is the party that has tried and failed umpteen times to kill the coverage of 20 million Americans; the party that has refused to accept that Obamacare is the law of the land even after John Roberts’ court upheld it (with a vote from Roberts); the party that has tried and failed umpteen times to craft a health reform alternative; the party that was swept from power in the House because Democrats defended Obamacare on the midterm campaign trail. And now, to top things off, the judge in Texas got the opportunity to assail Obamacare only because a last-ditch Republican lawsuit landed in his lap.

In a nutshell – I promise to keep it simple – here’s what happened:

Republican attorney generals in 20 states decided to sabotage or kill Obamacare by suing it (never mind that the Supreme Court had basically settled the issue). Meanwhile, last year, when the Republican Congress passed its big tax bill (the bill that massively reduced rich people’s taxes), it also took aim at a key Obamacare provision. As you may recall, Obamacare requires Americans to pay a penalty if they forego health coverage; the Republicans, in their tax bill, reduced that penalty to zero. They did not abolish the penalty provision per se; they just neutered it.

Judge O’Connor, a George W. Bush appointee, got the lawsuit. In his Friday ruling, he basically decreed that because the Republicans had neutered the penalty, it meant that the penalty itself was unconstitutional; and that since the penalty was supposedly unconstitutional, that meant the entire law had to be unconstitutional. But O’Connor’s reasoning is “pretty bananas” (so says conservative legal scholar Adler), because, according to traditional (i.e. conservative) legal doctrine, the courts cannot blow away an entire law when Congress took aim at only one provision.

Cue the conservative Wall Street Journal’s editorial: “Millions of people now rely on Obamacare’s subsidies and rules – which argues against judges repealing the law by fiat.”

Repealing the law by fiat…True that. Conservatives always complain about “judicial overreach,” about liberal judges “legislating from the bench.” Yet here we have a classic example. The broad sweep of this ruling – if allowed to stand – would wipe out everything in the law, from the popular protection of people with preexisting medical conditions, to the popular coverage for young people until age 26, to the expansion of Obamacare via Medicaid – which has become so popular that it’s now a feature in 36 states, including Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah, and West Virginia. Those I’ve listed are all red states.

But will this ruling be allowed to stand? Doubtful. Most legal scholars believe that the U.S. Court of Appeals (even the conservative circuit where it goes next) will nix the ruling for its judicial overreach. An appeals decision, either way, won’t happen until next spring. And even if it somehow winds up back in the U.S. Supreme Court, a decision there wouldn’t happen until the spring of 2020. In the meantime, Obamacare remains in effect; in the words of Trump’s health administrator, it’s “still open for business. There will be no impact to enrollees’ current coverage or their coverage in a 2019 plan.”

And in the meantime – here’s where we talk politics again – Democrats will hammer away at this latest manifestation of Republican sabotage. the newly empowered House Democrats will likely intervene in the case as it heads to the appeals court – as well they should. They believe in the policy that covers 20 million people, and they’re rightly confident about the politics. Their defense of Obamacare triggered a net gain of 40 House seats, and a nationwide winning House margin of 9.73 million votes. According to the ’18 exit polls, health care was the top voting issue by a decisive margin; those voters favored Democratic candidates by 75 to 23 percent.

Which is why Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar observed yesterday that the GOP “seems bound and determined to take away people’s health care.” They’d prefer not to re-fight this rhetorical battle, but the high road is wide open. And Republicans, forced again to play defense, will demonstrate yet again that political stupidity is their preexisting condition.



What you need to know about the Affordable Care Act after Texas ruling

The Affordable Care Act faces a new legal challenge after a federal judge in Texas ruled the law unconstitutional on Friday. The decision risks throwing the nation’s health care system into turmoil should it be upheld on appeal. But little will be different in the meantime.

“Nothing changes for now,” says Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent of Kaiser Health News.

“If you need to sign up for health insurance you should,” Rovner tells NPR’s Michel Martin. “If you’re in one of the several states where it’s extended where you can sign up through January, you have time to do that too.”

Below are some questions and answers about the ACA.

1. What was the Texas ruling?

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that the Affordable Care Act was not constitutional. O’Connor made his decision after 18 Republican state attorneys general and two GOP governors brought their case, Rovner reports. They claimed that the Supreme Court upheld the ACA in 2012 because it included an individual mandate — or a tax penalty for Americans who did not buy health insurance. After Congress repealed the individual mandate in 2017, O’Connor said the rest of the law fell apart.

2. Who might this ruling affect?

The Affordable Care Act runs for more than 1,000 pages and includes many provisions — the exchanges for individuals that are frequently political footballs — and a long list of other measures and protections designed to expand insurance coverage.

NPR’s Alison Kodjak reports that the ACA expanded Medicaid, which has allowed more than 10 million people to get coverage in states that chose to expand the program. The law also protects people with pre-existing conditions and allows people up to age 26 to be covered under their parents’ insurance; requires calorie counts at restaurants and gives protections to lactating mothers. The ACA also secured more money for Native American health care and made significant changes to allow for generic drugs and to provide funding for Medicare.

Rovner says people should act as if the ACA is still in place, but the ruling opens a possibility for “an enormous disruption.”

“It would really plunge the nation’s health care system into chaos,” Rovner says. “The federal government wouldn’t be able to pay for Medicare because all the Medicare payments have been structured because of the Affordable Care Act.”

3. What next?

Judge O’Connor did not rule the law has to be enjoined immediately. Saturday was the last day of open enrollment for the ACA in most states. NPR’s Kodjak reports people can still enroll in health plans in states with extended deadlines. She says even the newest ACA insurance policies will go into effect until more legal action plays out in courts. The federal site for insurance, Healthcare.gov, is running a banner that reads, “Court’s decision does not affect 2019 enrollment coverage.”

NPR’s Kodjak says the state of California has already said it will appeal the ruling. Other states will likely join California in the fight to preserve the law, Kodjak reports. Rovner says the case will probably reach the Supreme Court, though lower courts may reject O’Conner’s ruling first.

4. What are the political stakes in this decision?

The political stakes are great. Voters saw health care as an important issue in November’s midterm elections. Kodjak notes Congress voted multiple times in 2017 to repeal the ACA but did not succeed.

“Lots of Republicans were running ads during the midterms saying they were the ones who were going to protect people’s health care, and specifically protect people with pre-existing conditions,” Kodjak says.

The challenge to the ACA brought by Republican attorneys general is aimed at eliminating protections for pre-existing conditions, Kodjak says.

“So now you have Republicans trying to play both sides, which is going to be difficult,” she says.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Why the Jersey Shore is worth a look during the holidays

Things seem pretty quiet on the Jersey Shore for the holidays, compared with the big crowds of summer. But all along the Shore, towns, business districts and homeowners pull out all the stops to light up the dark nights of early winter.

From Smithville in Atlantic County to Cape May at the southern tip of the state, displays celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah and other holidays help brighten the longest nights of the year.

It’s a good time to visit if you want to see how the Jersey Shore looks to the locals who are lucky enough to call this home year-round.

Absecon, New Jersey. (Bill Barlow/for WHYY)

Since Cape May transforms into a Victorian village each year, we decided to dedicate an entire gallery to this historic resort town.

Why so many people visit Cape May in December 

The Queen Victoria Bed & Breakfast in Cape May, N.J.(Photo courtesy of Werner Tedesco)



PennEast now faces tough scrutiny from DEP after winning court battle

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

Now comes the hard part for PennEast.

While the pipeline company won a long-awaited federal court ruling on Friday, allowing it access to private and public lands in New Jersey, it must next meet a long list of permit requirements from other agencies, notably the Department of Environmental Protection, which is expected to provide the sternest test yet over whether the pipeline can be built.

To build its proposed 120-mile natural gas pipeline through New Jersey, the company must satisfy the DEP that it will not violate federal water-quality standards, and that it complies with many other state rules including those on flood hazards, storm water and endangered species.

In the hope of meeting those standards, PennEast must conduct surveys for environmentally sensitive features such as streams and wetlands on the properties of 136 landowners who have previously refused access but are now required by the ruling to allow PennEast officials on their land for surveying purposes.

U.S. District Judge Brian Martinotti granted PennEast the right of eminent domain over the properties some eight months after hearing oral arguments over whether it has the right to take properties from landowners, including the state, which have rebuffed its offers of compensation.

Martinotti rejected the landowners’ arguments that a federal certificate approving the $1 billion pipeline was not final, and that the company could not “condemn,” or take possession of, portions of the properties immediately.

Pipeline company entitled to proceed

“This Court finds PennEast is entitled to the condemnation orders … and they are entitled to them on an immediate and expedited basis,” he wrote in a 50-page opinion.

The judge also rejected arguments by the New Jersey Attorney General’s office that the federal Natural Gas Act is silent on whether a private company can take land by eminent domain. In fact, he wrote, the law allows any party that has a certificate of public convenience from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — which issued one to PennEast in January — to acquire rights of way by exercising eminent domain in federal court.

The New Jersey Attorney General’s office, which earlier this year asked FERC to suspend its approval for PennEast, said it was reviewing Martinotti’s ruling, and would have no comment.

If built, the pipeline will carry natural gas from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania to Mercer County, New Jersey. The company says the project will give New Jersey customers better access to low-cost gas from the abundant reserves of the Marcellus Shale. Opponents say the company’s claims of strong demand for the gas are undermined by the fact that states are adopting strong energy goals that do not include fossil fuels like natural gas.

PennEast welcomed the ruling and said its next steps will be to conduct “routine land, environmental and other ground-level surveys” to meet state and federal permit requirements.

A promise to reduce environmental impact

Tony Cox, chairman of the PennEast Board of Managers, said in a statement that the company aims to reduce environmental impact such as tree cutting by running about half of the pipeline along existing rights of way, primarily those already occupied by overhead power lines.

Cox also said the company will allocate “millions of new dollars” for open-space preservation to comply with state law requiring mitigation of preserved lands where the company wants to build the pipeline. In February, the state rejected PennEast’s offers of compensation for several parcels of protected land in Hunterdon County where the pipeline would run.

Private landowners will be compensated for permanent and temporary impacts to their properties, and will retain ownership and use of the lands, including for farming, but will not be allowed to build structures or plant trees directly over the right of way, Cox said.

“We strive to build positive relationships with landowners, the community and agencies and will continue working toward that goal,” said Cox. “With today’s ruling, PennEast can collect and supply scientific data as required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the NJDEP for PennEast’s permits to ensure a thorough and complete application.”

In February, the DEP formally denied PennEast’s latest application for a permit to cross freshwater wetlands, saying the company’s application did not contain all the necessary information.

Will DEP stand in its way?

Martinotti’s ruling is the second recent boost for the pipeline project which has faced strong opposition in many communities, and been assailed as an environmentally damaging and unnecessary project by critics including the New Jersey Rate Counsel, an advocate for utility ratepayers.

In early December, a federal judge in Pennsylvania granted the company its first eminent domain rights in that state, over the property of one landowner who had denied survey access. Other Pennsylvania landowners have granted survey access but continue to fight the condemnation of their lands.

Meanwhile, PennEast’s critics say the company will have its work cut out to convince the DEP that it can build the pipeline without violating the federal Clean Water Act, which the state is responsible for implementing.

“I still think it’s going to be difficult for them to get the permits from New Jersey because they are going through so many environmentally sensitive areas,” said Tim Duggan, an attorney who represents about 40 landowners as well as several nonprofits and local government entities. “It’s going to be hard for them to show that there’s no adverse impact on our water quality.”

Duggan predicted that it will take about a year and a half for PennEast to do its surveys and submit a new application for a water-quality permit, and then for the DEP to evaluate the application. If so, the process would prevent the company beginning pipeline construction in 2019, as it has stated it will.

Company expects to start construction in 2019

PennEast spokeswoman Pat Kornick said Sunday that the company “still anticipates beginning construction in 2019.”

Critics say that preliminary work like tree cutting could still take place in 2019, raising the prospect that some of the rights of way will be cleared before the project gets its final permits from all agencies including FERC.

That would invite comparisons with the proposed Constitution Pipeline which cut trees on a northeastern Pennsylvania farm in 2016 but was then denied a water-quality permit by New York State in a decision that has since been upheld by an appeals court and by FERC. It is now unclear whether that pipeline will ever be built.

In New Jersey, Martinotti’s ruling was not a major surprise but still came as a shock to some landowners.

T.C. Buchanan, who grows fruit, vegetables, hay and Christmas trees on 32 acres in Delaware Township, Hunterdon County, said she had been in tears since hearing from a reporter that opponents had lost the latest battle in their long-running war against PennEast.

If the pipeline is built on the property which her husband’s family has owned since the 1960s, Buchanan said it would mean removing Christmas trees as well as those growing apples and Asian pears, and it would run through her two largest hay fields.

Landowner: ‘I find it very hard to believe…’

“I find it very hard to believe that anybody with a true sense of right and wrong would just allow a corporation that is totally about profit to take and destroy people’s lands that they have bought with their blood, sweat and tears, that they have worked their entire lives for. It blows me away,” said Buchanan, who has lived on the farm for 23 years.

But she expressed confidence that opponents will eventually win the fight, especially if the DEP denies water permits to PennEast.

“I believe we have a state government that cares about the environment, and the people and the drinking water,” she said.

While Martinotti’s ruling is a setback for PennEast’s opponents, the length of time it took to be issued signals that the judiciary is taking seriously its responsibility to consider environmental rights after other branches of government have “abdicated” their responsibilities in that area, argued Maya van Rossum, leader of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

“The judicial branch is an increasingly key player in holding government accountable, so while the outcome was expected, the process behind it sent a powerful message that the judge recognized he had a unique role and duty,” she wrote in an email.

The project also needs permits from the Delaware River Basin Commission, which has yet to begin its review of the PennEast application, and from some federal agencies. DRBC spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment late Friday.


A fresh, new look at ‘A Christmas Carol’ (Lantern Theater Co.)

Lantern Theater has a Christmas gift, in the form of a finely considered reworking of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The storyteller is the theater artist Anthony Lawton, who joins forces with lighting and scenic designer Thom Weaver and sound designer Christopher Colucci — three powerhouses in local professional theater with individual track records over the years.

Their intimate, smooth production of Dickens’ novella, adapted by Lawton, uses a good deal of the original, venturing out of the story at times for some commentary from Lawton. He cites the retro quality of the phrase “Bah! Humbug!” and asks the members of the audience to replace it in their minds with something more current and meaningful. After Lawton tells of Scrooge dismissing a man who seeks charity for workhouses, he explains what a London workhouse was and why it was a place of despair. At one point, Lawton quotes C.S. Lewis on the subject of fear. (He has also adapted Lewis’ work for the stage.)

It all blends seamlessly with the story, which Lawton amends slightly and smartly in this one-man production. His Ghost of Christmas Present, for instance, takes Scrooge magically onto the London streets early Christmas morning, where they observe the happy rush before the day begins in earnest — people scurrying in the shops and making last-minute food purchases in the markets for Christmas dinner. And in a second we’re out of the crowded streets of London and into the Reading Terminal Market and the stalls along Ninth Street. In Lawton’s excited telling, it makes perfect sense.

He accomplishes this with little more than a lectern as a prop. He pushes it to one part of the bare wooden stage and, overturned, it’s the bed Scrooge sleeps in when he’s visited by his late partner Marley, who comes to introduce Scrooge to the nightmare that will be his transformation. The lighting and sound designs by Weaver and Colucci, respectively, become key as the 90-minute show moves forward with images of ghosts and bells and crowds mentioned in its narrative.

Lawton’s role goes all the way back to Dickens himself, who liked to give public readings of “A Christmas Carol” and, as the Lantern’s Meghan Winch writes in the program notes, even whittled the novella down to a reading he could give in 90 minutes. More recently, Dickens’ great-great-grandson, the British actor Gerald Dickens, has given readings of “A Christmas Carol” in historic places in the United States, including the Philadelphia region.

The Lantern version has several rich moments — two of my favorites are the appearance of Marley in Scrooge’s bed chamber, which Lawton offers up in stirring fashion, and that little Christmas morning tour, during which you can almost smell the roasts in the ovens all over London (and Philadelphia).

Costume designer Kierceton Keller dresses Lawton in a disheveled red morning coat and tattered tan pants, with a fluffy cravat falling down his shirt. His face is white-washed in grease paint and his nose is a clownish red — a makeup effect that seems out of place until the story begins to pump and in the stark lighting, Lawton looks much like we imagine a ghost. It’s a tremendously effective image in a new take on a story that’s inextricable with the holiday and the season.

“A Christmas Carol,” in a version commissioned and produced by Lantern Theater, runs through Jan. 6 in the Black Box Theater at Drexel University’s URBN Center Annex, 3401 Filbert St. 215-829-0395 or lanterntheater.org


At Penn State, researchers push for answers on carbon capture: Will it stay where we put it?

If power plants that burn fossil fuels could capture their carbon emissions and store them somewhere, it would go a long way toward preventing greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere.

That would dramatically lessen the effects of climate change. While many scientists and engineers in Pennsylvania work to develop this cutting-edge technology, it’s slow to roll out and so far exists only outside the commonwealth.

Some of the newest research comes from Penn State. It’s in the field of carbon capture and sequestration, better known to the public as “clean coal” technology. It generally involves filtering out carbon dioxide from the rest of the emissions from a coal or gas-fired power plant. The CO2 then shoots through a pipeline to an injection site, where it’s pumped into the ground. Sometimes it’s done just for storage in rock, and other times it takes place in old oil fields to help squeeze more crude out of the ground.

“It’s not like there is a swimming pool where these things are stored,” said Sanjay Srinivasan, professor and head of the department of energy and mineral engineering at Penn State. “These gases and supercritical fluids have to migrate through very small pore spaces.”

The hope is they’ll stay trapped inside the rock forever.

But, what if one day the carbon dioxide moves somewhere unwanted?

“It’s really important to keep track of where the CO2 is,” said Eugene Morgan, assistant professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering.

In places where this is being tested, he said carbon dioxide is often injected down old wells into oil fields.

“Those wells offer a very nice pathway for CO2 to travel,” he said.

No one wants it to move into an aquifer or back up into the air, but the professors say more research needs to take place to know whether that’s likely.

The team, along with researchers from several other institutions, received a federal grant to develop a way to track carbon dioxide with seismic data from injection sites in Texas and Mississippi.

When pushed underground at a high pressure, carbon dioxide forms small cracks in the rock. To help explain, Tieyuan Zhu, assistant professor of geophysics, queues up a Powerpoint presentation and hits play.

A series of pops erupt from his computer.

“You can hear the sound at the beginning is very strong,” he said.

Those pops indicate the energy from the carbon dioxide traveling about the fractures. Eventually, they slow.

“If it opens a very small fracture … you are going to hear the weaker sound,” Zhu said.

The goal is to create a way to follow the spread of carbon dioxide in real time. Each researcher plays a different role in making that happen, from developing a detailed geologic model of the site to processing data on the speed of the seismic waves and how the energy from the waves dissipates as they interact with the rocks.

Could projects testing this technology come to Pennsylvania?

Between Penn State, other universities and a federal lab near Pittsburgh, a lot of research on carbon capture and sequestration takes place in Pennsylvania. But on-the-ground projects testing this technology are located elsewhere.

Some people, like John Quigley, say they could be here. A decade ago when he was secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the agency released several reports on the feasibility of the technology in Pennsylvania.

“We found that Pennsylvania had several hundred years worth of storage potential,” he said.

Quigley wanted to pursue what he calls a carbon network — capturing carbon dioxide from the state’s coal plants and piping it to a site for storage.

FirstEnergy’s Bruce Mansfield Power Plant in Shippingport, Pa. (Reid Frazier/StateImpact Pennsylvania)

He knows that’s a heavy lift, and he said the state’s energy landscape has changed drastically in the years since as rigs drill deep into the Marcellus Shale for natural gas. The focus has shifted to gas, which, when used to generate electricity, emits less carbon dioxide than coal.

Quigley served in the Rendell administration when DCNR did the bulk of its carbon capture and sequestration research. He said governors since then have not followed up much on the subject.

“It starts with a demonstration of leadership and intent at the state level, that this is a priority, and then gathering these stakeholders and starting the really complicated conversations about how we are going to move this thing off square one,” he said.

The topic has not totally fallen off the state’s radar. The Pennsylvania Geological Survey is in a regional partnership testing storage underground.

A spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf said the administration is eyeing a carbon capture project in Texas, and he urged Congress to increase a tax credit for storage projects.

That measure passed earlier this year. It could make a meaningful difference, said Jarad Daniels, director of strategic planning, analysis and engagement with the U.S. Department of Energy’s office of fossil energy.

“There are a lot of people out in private sectors and private companies in the United States that are talking about it,” he said.

A high price tag and big stakes

The buzz surrounding the tax credit has to do with a major obstacle for capturing carbon emissions: cost. Take, for example, the $1 billion project completed at a coal plant in Texas last year — the first major carbon capture system in the United States.

“If you go out and talk to some of the folks that started those first-of-a-kind units, they know that if they built a second-of-a-kind, it would come in probably 20 or 30 percent cheaper just because of the lessons they learned building and operating that first unit for a year or two,” Daniels said.

Federal and state subsidies have helped the industry pioneer the technology.

Some of it is being developed by DOE itself. The National Energy Technology Laboratory south of Pittsburgh, for example, is working on membranes that could be used to filter emissions.

“They have come up with a way of taking different materials and mixing them together in a very thin sheet,” said John Litynski, who manages DOE’s carbon capture program. “Essentially they selectively move carbon dioxide through that thin sheet. You have a pure form of CO2 on one side and remaining nitrogen on the other side.”

While that may not take care of all carbon emissions from a power plant, using membranes could significantly reduce the amount that goes into the atmosphere and be more cost-effective than other technologies that seek to capture more emissions, Daniels said.

Some experts, like Ed Rubin at Carnegie Mellon University, point to the history of environmental controls at power plants. For example, acid rain was a huge problem facing some communities until coal plants installed scrubbers to remove sulfur dioxide from their emissions, said Rubin, a professor in the departments of mechanical engineering, as well as engineering and public policy. Over a few decades, Rubin said costs for that technology have come way down.

“The more you do it, the better you get at it,” he said.

He expects the same will happen with carbon dioxide controls, but he said tougher regulations are needed to make that technology more widespread.

“Policies come in two flavors: carrots and sticks,” he said. “Turns out most people like carrots more than sticks.”

That tax credit Congress passed last year? He considers that a carrot. But, he said, we need sticks too — major policies like the Obama-era plan requiring states to dramatically cut emissions, or a market-based approach such as a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax.

“If the motivating issue is climate change, we need deep reductions in emissions, not shallow reductions, and we need them fairly quickly,” he said.

At the Penn State campus, the researchers also feel the clock ticking as they work to better track the movement of carbon dioxide underground.

“That sort of tool needs to be developed, proved and field-ready,” Morgan said.

Then, even bigger carbon storage operations can start up. Srinivasan said that’s an important part of the strategy to combat climate change because the transition to renewable energy is slow. Flip on a light switch and more often than not, that electricity still comes from fossil fuels.

“Carbon sequestration, especially geologic sequestration, is almost a must,” he said. “We have to do it.”

Read the Governors Letter on Carbon Capture Incentives here.


Despite finishing PTC work, NJ Transit hasn’t said when Atlantic City trains will resume

Work might be finished on New Jersey Transit’s Atlantic City Rail line, but service hasn’t been restored and it’s not clear when that will happen.

The line shut down in September for installation of positive train control, the automatic braking system that engages in emergency situations. NJ Transit rail service planners are now evaluating a schedule for restoring regular service to the Atlantic City Rail Line, the Princeton “Dinky” line and others, said spokesman Jim Smith.

“We are still intending to restore service as fast as possible, following the successful meeting of the end of year PTC installation deadline,” he said.

The trains and workers have been reassigned to help ease overcrowding in North Jersey, and buses are shuttling the approximate 2,000 commuters use the rail service daily.

NJ Transit is hurrying to meet a December 31 deadline for installing PTC on all its lines.  Congress had mandated all passenger train lines install PTC by the end of 2015. But once it became clear the vast majority of trains in the country would not be able to meet the deadline it was extended to 2018.  Despite this extension, NJ Transit has been rushing to get all the work done, modifying schedules and curtailing some service.

When it suspended service on the Atlantic City line, riders questioned whether this was the first step towards getting rid of the service entirely.  NJ Transit has insisted that is not its plan, and that service will resume.


Youth vote still surging in Philadelphia

Philadelphia saw a big increase in youth voting in the midterm election last month, according to an analysis by the City Commissioners office, the three-member panel that runs elections.

While citywide turnout Nov. 6 increased by 40 percent compared with the 2014 midterm, the turnout of voters aged 18 to 34 increased by 111 percent.

More voters in that age cohort cast ballots in November than any other age group.

Voter turnout in Philadelphia: Percentage change from 2014 General to 2018 General, by age cohort (Philadelphia City Commissioner)

City Commissioner Al Schmidt said that the young voter surge is a trend.

“It is now the fourth election in a row that shows increases among younger voters outpacing everybody else,” Schmidt said. “So it’s not a one-off thing we’re seeing. We’re seeing a sustained increase in younger voters participating.”

The youth movement began in the 2017 Democratic primary, when young voters helped send a progressive candidate, Larry Krasner, to the district attorney’s office and gave first-time candidate Rebecca Rhynhart a surprise win in the city controller’s race.

Analysts credit reaction to Donald Trump’s election with energizing young voters, and the elevated participation kept up in the 2017 general election, the 2018 primary, and the Nov 6 vote.

Schmidt said the increases in turnout were heaviest in Fishtown, Northern Liberties, Center City and South Philadelphia, communities relatively heavily populated with millennials.


The Rate Escape: Pa. shifts how it measures schools, but will parents buy in?

A couple years ago, Jean Rauscher was at a familiar crossroads.

Her oldest child was about to start school and the family wanted to move.

“And we can’t visit everywhere,” she said. “So thank god for the internet.”

Rauscher’s first instinct was to open up a web browser and google the phrase “best elementary schools in the USA.” It led her to a suite of websites: GreatSchools, Niche.com, SchoolDigger, and US News and World Report. Each is a little different, but they all try to judge school quality. And they each attach an overall score, letter grade, or ranking to schools across the country.

“It’s so helpful to have that one number,” she said. “This elementary school’s a 10. This elementary school’s an 8.”

Schools in the Tredyffrin-Easttown district in suburban Philadelphia rate highly, and that’s eventually where the family moved. The ratings didn’t dictate Rauscher’s choice, but they guided it. They gave her somewhere to start.

Jean Rauscher (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Pennsylvania used to be one of the entities that rated schools.

In 2013, the state started assigning School Performance Profile scores, which ranged from 0 to more than 100. That kind of scoring was once required by the federal government. Then the law changed, and Governor Tom Wolf’s administration says it started to rethink its approach.

Last month it unveiled its new school evaluation tool, the Future Ready PA Index.

If you visit the site you’ll see a profile page for each of the commonwealth’s public and charter schools. Those profiles contain a collage of dots sorted into eight categories — with links to more detailed data.

But here’s what you won’t find:

You won’t find a number. You won’t find a letter grade. You won’t find any sort of bold-faced metric to tell you whether the school is “good” or “bad” or somewhere in between.

A screenshot of the Future Ready PA Index website showing the report for Altoona Area High School.

Pennsylvania officials believe this “dashboard” approach deemphasizes standardized test scores and offers parents a better, more nuanced look at public schools across the state. Ideally, they hope it will change the behavior of schools and districts, freeing them to focus on more holistic measures of student success.

Skeptics wonder, though, if the state’s new tool stands a chance against established, attractive, and privately run sites that millions of people already trust.

Will parents like Jean Rauscher take time to scroll through a detailed dashboard, when a simple Google search quickly produces intuitive snapshots they can use to map their kids’ futures?

An age of ratings

In some ways, Pennsylvania officials are swimming against the cultural current.

We live in an age of ratings. Yelp, TripAdvisor, Rotten Tomatoes — each provide numerical guideposts, giving consumers a seemingly rational way to sift through the bewildering array of options now at their fingertips.

Education is not immune to this trend.

But some researchers believe a one-score rating system for schools is fundamentally flawed.

Since getting the green light from the federal government, eleven states have scrapped their rating systems in favor of descriptive models that assign words like “average” or “needs improvement.”

Another five, including Pennsylvania and California, have gone a step further. They no longer provide any sort of top-line or “summative” score, meaning they make no definitive declaration about the quality of their schools.

“A single summative score can send a false message about what’s happening throughout a school,” said Matthew Stem, the state’s deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education.

Stem and his colleagues also worry the old model relied too heavily on test scores, which they see as incomplete at best, and misleading at worst.

“[Test scores] mask what’s happening under the surface,” Stem said.

Other critics go further.

They say ratings don’t tell you how good the teachers are or how good the curriculum is. Instead, they tell you whether a school has a lot of wealthy students, kids who are more likely to score well on tests due to factors beyond the school walls. Those high test scores become high ratings, which then attract more wealthy people who have the income to afford homes and taxes in highly-rated districts.

“You can see a sort of feedback loop here,” said Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who studies school-quality measures. “What we can see is that information is leading people to self-segregate.”

High wealth, high scores

The correlation between high-wealth schools and high school ratings is clear.

The graphic below uses state data from 2017 and shows schools that scored well on Pennsylvania’s School Performance Profiles tended to be wealthier. Schools that served more poor students fared markedly worse.

That same phenomenon shows up in the 10-point-scale rating system used by GreatSchools, a nonprofit that has become one of the most prominent independent school-ranking services.

Analyzing data provided by GreatSchools, Keystone Crossroads found that, again, wealthy schools tended to score better.

On average, Pennsylvania schools where low-income students made up a quarter of the student body or less scored a 7.5.

Pennsylvania schools were low-income students made up three-quarters of the student body or more received, on average, a 2.7 rating.

Even if this correlation didn’t exist, some see a philosophical problem with reducing schools to a score.

“Schools don’t lend themselves to this sort of rating,” said Schneider. “Schools are highly complex. They’re more like ecosystems than hotel rooms.”

Simply by existing, a school rating endorses the idea that schools can be uniformly “good” or “bad.” The truth, Schneider said, is more complicated. He believes parents should evaluate whether a school fits their child, but the current paradigm encourages them to sort schools first into a hierarchy before they do that kind of deeper analysis. And while the idea of “good” and “bad” schools predates the internet, at least one recent study suggests the proliferation of school ratings has exacerbated wealth segregation.

Pennsylvania’s new evaluation tool is designed to change the way parents and community members look at schools.

Each school’s home page features eight categories, and they receive a blue, green, or red mark in each. Blue is the best and red is the worst. The state also indicates if it believes a school’s performance in each category is on the rise, stable, or declining.

Four of the eight categories reference standardized test scores on state exams, with two looking at overall proficiency and two looking at student growth. There are also categories dedicated to English language learners, attendance, and college and career readiness.

‘That one number’

The question is whether this kind of nuanced format will catch on.

Some state lawmakers have already been questioning whether the new approach makes sense.

Earlier this year, John Eichelberger, R-Blair, the former head of the Senate Education Committee, introduced a bill that would have legally codified School Performance Profiles as the state’s sole accountability measure. As Eichelberger sees it, the new dashboard model will only confuse people, and he worries that the lack of summative score will effectively allow schools to dodge criticism.

“We have 500 school districts in Pennsylvania — they’re some of the best public relations machines that I’ve ever seen,” said Eichelberger. “We hear all this good news coming from schools.”

When people hear their local schools aren’t scoring well on SPP or other metrics, they’re often surprised, he said. He sees the Future Ready PA Index as a back-channel to avoid the scrutiny that comes with hard data.

“The education bureaucracy is never satisfied with any of the numbers they get,” he said. “They have a difficult time being assessed.”

The toughest people to win over, though, will probably be parents, like Jean Rauscher.

Rauscher admits her family might have focused more on ratings than others, but lots of families do some version of the search she and her family conducted and find it very useful.

As Kenneth Hong, another recent Tredyffrin-Easttown transplant put it, rating systems like GreatSchools and Niche “gave us a high comfort level that [the district] has pretty high quality schools.”

Kenneth Hong (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

Hong and Rauscher acknowledge that ratings sites are probably biased toward schools in wealthy districts with hyper-involved parents. But every type of evaluation has its imperfections, including word of mouth.

Besides, Rauscher said, the bias baked into the rating systems could be a good thing.

“That’s gonna be your community, people who want their kids to learn, and do well, and go to really good colleges,” she said. “I don’t have a problem with that.

‘A complex problem’

GreatSchools received 47 million unique visitors last year, the organization said, helped by its link with real estate sites such as Zillow. About 22 million people visited the K-12 ratings on Niche.com, one million of which logged on in Pennsylvania, according to a spokesperson.

GreatSchools’ Chief Strategy Officer Sam Olivieri acknowledges that the relationship between school ratings and student poverty creates a “complex problem.” But she argues that simply getting rid of summative scores won’t improve things.

Parents need some sort of top-line score before they can really roll up their sleeves and start looking at schools, she says. It’s the portal that brings them to all the other information GreatSchools has on its site — data on class size, absenteeism, and demographics.

“It’s a starting point,” Olivieri said of the overall score.

The key is to improve ratings systems, she believes, not bury them.

A screenshot of school districts in central Pennsylvania as seen on the real estate site Zillow as rated by GreatSchools.

In 2017, GreatSchools changed its formula to include an “equity” rating for each school, which looks at how historically disadvantaged groups score on state tests and contributes to a school’s overall score.

GreatSchools also added nuance to its rating system by factoring in student growth on state tests and not relying solely on overall proficiency. The formula also takes into account graduation rates and advanced offerings for high schools.

Based on a Keystone Crossroads analysis, these changes have slightly diminished the strong correlation between student wealth and school rating.

Can nuance survive?

Even some skeptics of school-rating sites caution against abandoning the model. Information overload, they argue, can confuse parents, turning a potentially empowering resource into something that further separates haves from have notes.

Rating systems that lack a “summary measure are not really helpful,” said Rebecca Jacobsen, an associate professor for education politics and policy at Michigan State University. “Most parents will simply turn off and not really understand the data.”

Jack Schneider isn’t a believer in summative scores, but he thinks Pennsylvania’s new site needs “a design intervention, stat.”

“I do this for a living and spent maybe 15 minutes on it. And struggled for a while to figure out what I was looking at,” he said.

Matthew Stem, with the state’s department of education, said his colleagues focus-tested the Future Ready PA Index with parents and so far the feedback has been “almost universally positive.”

But this is all new, and the question remains: Can states offer a more nuanced tool to gauge school quality without alienating the people they’re supposed to help?

As Olivieri from GreatSchools’ warns:

“If you build it, they won’t necessarily come.”


Tangled up in the process: Should a criminal history bar you from a career in cosmetology?

Before passing the licensing exam to become a cosmetologist in Pennsylvania, you must first hold up under under scrutiny to prove that you are of “good moral character.” But the requirement is so loosely defined that even those who have gone to great lengths to turn their lives around can be denied. On this episode of The Why, WHYY reporter Trenae Nuri explains why those who’ve found themselves on the losing end of the process are now filing a lawsuit seeking to change it.


How to make sure your math anxiety doesn’t make your kids hate math

A spike in blood pressure. A racing heart rate. Sweaty palms.

For many adults, this is what they feel when faced with difficult math.

But for kids, math anxiety isn’t just a feeling, it can affect their ability to do well in school. This fear tends to creep up on students when performance matters the most, like during exams or while speaking in class.

One reason for a kid’s math anxiety? How their parents feel about the subject.

“A parent might say, ‘oh I’m not a math person, it’s okay if you’re not good at math either,’ ” Sian Beilock, cognitive scientist and President of Barnard College, says. “It can send a signal to kids about whether they can succeed.”

But new research from Beilock and her team shows that parents don’t have to overcome their fear of math to help their child succeed, as long they changed their attitudes about the subject.

The researchers gave families in the Chicago area math-related bedtime stories to read at night, through an iPad app called Bedtime Math. The stories featured fun facts about walking frogs or the world’s largest cupcake. After reading the stories with their parents, kids answered questions about what they just read, practicing simple addition or measuring the amount of an ingredient. Families did this for a total of three years — while kids grew from first to third grade — because this is when kids tend to solidify their fear of math.

After a year of reading these stories, parents felt more confident in their children’s math potential and valued the importance of math skills more. Now, after three years, when those students were tested on their math ability, they did just as well as the kids whose parents felt confident about math.

One caveat: Two years into the study, families rarely used the app (less than once a week) and parents still felt anxious about their own math skills. Using the app to read bedtime stories didn’t get rid of math anxiety — it was a way for families to normalize math at home and foster a relaxed dialogue around the subject. There’s more than one way to do it: Beilock suggests other fun activities like puzzles and cooking give families an opportunity to talk about math.

Creating an environment in which math is part of everyday life won’t transform kids into overnight math sensations, but perhaps it can help kids realize math is a subject for curiosity, discussion and growth.

“It’s almost socially acceptable to be anxious about math,” in a way that doesn’t apply to reading, Beilock says. But early math skills form an important foundation for academic success and have predicted achievement later in school, including reading skills.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Philly frustration, 1968: ‘The day that they were all against everything’

Mention the Philadelphia Eagles and last year’s Super Bowl win comes to mind. But so does that time fans booed and pelted Santa Claus with snow balls.

It happened 50 years ago on Saturday. The game on Dec. 15, 1968 between the Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings wasn’t memorable, but what happened at halftime was.

The basic story has been repeated over the decades, but this is what it boils down to. The Eagles were having a bad season. This game wasn’t going well, either, so the fans held on to their anger for the halftime show.

“Poor, little, old Santa Claus got bombarded while my dad and I sat in the stands with our hands over our heads,” remembers Gail Wehmeyer, an Eagles fan and season ticket holder since 1961.

Wehmeyer says fans behind her didn’t have great aim. So she got pelted, too.

The man in the suit was 20-year-old Frank Olivo. He’s since died, but he spoke about that day with ESPN seven years ago.

“I remember watching a fellow make a snowball and throw it at me,” Olivo told ESPN. “And I just walked up to him, you know, at the bottom of the wall there. And I said, you’re not getting anything for Christmas.”

That attitude is one Philadelphians can respect. Over the past five decades, Olivo became a minor hero. Local news outlets ran feature-length obituaries when he died in 2015.

On Philadelphia streets now, a few people say they’re a little ashamed that fans gave Santa a hard time 50 years ago. But outside a popular cheese steak restaurant before last Sunday’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys, fans like Zane Major remained unapologetic.

“It’s part of our reputation of no nonsense,” Major says. “We don’t even respect Santa Claus. We respect the win — the Eagles to win. That’s what — all we want for Christmas. If he’s not bringing that, then go away Santa Claus — snowballs coming.”

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Minor tidal flooding likely in some N.J. areas Sunday

Spotty to minor tidal flooding is likely in portions of the Jersey Shore Sunday, forecasters say.

The National Weather Service says a Coastal Flood Advisory is in effect from noon to 6 p.m. for Ocean County, where minor tidal flooding is likely. Spotty tidal flooding is possible elsewhere, especially in Monmouth County.

It’s due to continuing onshore flow, forecasters say.

The advisory is in effect from noon until 6 p.m. High tide along the Ocean County oceanfront occurs between 1 and 2 p.m. High tide along the back bays occurs later.

A Coastal Flooding Advisory statement says one-half foot of saltwater inundation above the ground level is possible in vulnerable areas.

Minor roadway flooding is possible on Long Beach Island, Seaside Heights, Point Pleasant Beach, and other locations near Barnegat Bay, according to the advisory.

“Do not leave your vehicle at a location that is prone to tidal flooding. Do not drive your vehicle through flood waters. The water may be deeper than you think it is,” the advisory warns. “You will be putting yourself in danger and your vehicle may be damaged, leading to costly repairs.”

The National Weather Service says moderate to heavy rainfall with continue through Sunday night accompanied by gusty northeast winds.