Earth Matters Columns are written by John Frederick and featured in the Altoona Mirror.

Signs, Signs

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Sign Controls: A Tough Issue Worth Discussing

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind.”
Like the Five Man Electrical Band that sang those words in their 1971 hit, “Signs”, my perfect world would have far fewer signs and billboards.
Public opinion surveys dating back several decades confirm that most Americans dislike billboards and would prefer much less outdoor advertising of all kinds. So widespread is this sentiment that even a place that is arguably one of the gaudiest cities in America - Reno, Nevada - voted a decade ago to ban construction of new billboards.

Scenic America (www.scenic.org) reports that Floridians oppose increases in the number of billboards in their communities by a ten to one margin. Nearly two thirds of New Hampshire residents oppose billboard advertising on highways. Four out of five Houstonians support the elimination of billboards in their city. More than two thirds of Missourians think that fewer billboards would make their state more attractive for tourists.
Here in Central Pennsylvania, people often observe that the State College area seems more aesthetically attractive and less cluttered with signs and billboards. That didn’t happen by accident. State College and many of the surrounding townships have stringent signage regulations.
Though there appears to be a strong distaste for outdoor advertising, the vocal minority on the other side of the issue would vehemently disagree. Businesses that use such advertising to sell their products or those that realize significant financial benefit from the sign business will argue that it is an important and notable contributor to the local economy. Those that lease ground for signs often contend that the erection of signs is one of their private property rights.
Beyond the concerns over visual blight, opponents counter that signs are distracting to drivers and invade the scenic “viewsheds” of those using public rights-of-ways.

When, then, do the property owners’ right to allow the erection of the massive sign infringe upon the publics’ right to see a sunset, a mountain side, a farm field or a patch of forest – all things that are part of our “commonwealth”. Similarly, how do we balance the financial benefits of the land owner or billboard company with the devaluation of a neighboring property? These are difficult legal and ethical questions.

Several new billboards, one of them a brightly illuminated digital board, have sprung up in the community over the last few months. Some stretches of road in Blair County already have more than twenty billboards per mile. This should raise an important question for all of us that live here. How many billboards are too many?

Though much smaller in scale, plastic street side signs present similar problems to their larger cousins. The primary election season has brought a rash of political campaign signs, joining the cage fight promotional signs and the advertising for roofing and painting contractors. Though some such signs are quite legal on private property, they are illegal in public right-of-ways. They frequently damage mowing equipment when accidentally run over and often become a source of litter.

Clearly, sign control is a difficult challenge but it is one worth discussing if we care about preserving the scenic landscapes of an incredibly beautiful place.

John Frederick writes on environmental issues every other Saturday in the Mirror. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Buy Here, Live Here

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Buy here. Live here. That is the simple four word message that is the centerpiece of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce’s recently introduced campaign to get folks to buy more locally.

What does it really mean? Is it just a business campaign? Or are there environmental benefits, too?  What it means may not be the same thing to everyone. To some, it’s just about buying things close to home. To others it might mean supporting local artisans, manufacturers and builders, instead of purchasing things made in Asia or South America.

It might be buying Benzels’ Pretzels, made right here in Altoona. You might choose McIntyre’s, Dutch Hill, Boyers or Gardner’s candy, all made in Blair County. You like Ritchey’s milk. You enjoy the baked goods from The Dream in Hollidaysburg or the bread from Pacifico’s Bakery. Your pizza choice might be one of the local shops instead of one of the national chains.

Many enjoy the local cuisine and recipes from one of our incredible family-owned restaurants in the community. Though it’s hard to find locally manufactured laundry detergent or cars made in Blair County, buying locally manufactured goods can still go beyond your food choices. One of our greatest regional manufacturing success stories is also one of our greenest. The American Eagle recycled paper mill in Tyrone now markets its paper right here in Blair County.
Buying local can also include local services. While some feel compelled to look for their health care elsewhere, our local hospitals frequently offer service and skills equal or superior to larger urban hospitals.

Custom woodworkers and local furniture finishers offer exceptional quality and beautiful workmanship. They often used locally harvested wood. Local nurseries grow a wide variety of trees and landscape plants in and near Blair County.

Though their products may be manufactured outside the region, locally owned stores are still common in some business sectors. Not surprisingly, McCartney’s Office Supplies’ Randy Greene, chair of the Buy Here, Live Here Committee, is a great example. Besides office supplies, locally owned furniture and hardware stores have continued to do business and even thrive here in Central Pennsylvania.

Specialty stores are frequently local establishments, the environmentally-friendly Green Home Goods being an excellent example.
There are still many other local stores and establishments that employ or are owned by people from our own community. The Chamber of Commerce’s campaign includes those businesses, too.

What businesses you choose can depend on many factors but their local connections are as important as any other. Doing business locally or buying locally produced products is not just good for the local economy but is good for the environment as well.

When people or goods travel shorter distances, they inevitably use less energy. Locally made products tend to be manufactured in a more sustainable way, too. Environmentally damaging or unsafe manufacturing practices are easier to ignore if they happen in China or India, but they’re hard to ignore in your own backyard. So no matter which interpretation of the buy here, live here message you follow, buying locally is a good thing for business, workers, and the environment.

John Frederick writes on environmental issues every other Saturday. He apologizes to all the local-based businesses that he didn’t have room to mention. Contact him at jfrederick@ircenvironment,org.

Environmental Safety

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Safety in the workplace isn’t just about avoiding falls and vehicle related accidents. It’s also about avoiding exposure to toxic substances and unsafe environments.

Thanks to many sensible regulations and laws, the American workplace is much safer than many other nations. By contrast, a Chinese worker is sixteen times more likely to be killed in the workplace than his American counterpart. Yet despite this apparent good news, Americans still die, are injured or are exposed to toxic chemicals in at work more than they should be. Often times, accidents and exposure could be avoided by the exercising of common sense and a greater awareness of potentially dangerous situations.

A man recently died, and a coworker nearly perished, in a California paint manufacturing facility while using a methylene chloride-based stripper in a storage tank. The chemical is a well-known workplace hazard, having killed more than fifty workers since the mid-eighties. One would think that people working in the paint industry would be particularly aware of the danger of the substance. But they weren’t.

Thirteen Imperial Sugar workers died in a dust explosion in a plant near Savannah, Georgia in 2008. (More than one hundred American workers have died in industrial dust explosions since 1985.) The Savannah explosion was blamed on the outdated and unsafe equipment and construction of the ninety year old plant.

Not surprisingly, the explosion prompted legislation to tighten the standards for industries that generate flammable dusts. Though the bill had bipartisan support, 165 congressmen still voted against the enhanced regulations. Fortunately, most American manufacturers and farmers place a high value on their workers and their safety. Most members of our legislatures similarly believe that worker safety and environmental safeguards are one of the marks of a civil society.
Yet personal responsibility and awareness of potential hazards are extremely important, too. With that in mind here are some things to keep you safer in your workplace and, for that matter, in your home as well.

Understand what you are working with. When something says it’s flammable, it’s probably because it is. If it’s an inhalation hazard, that means that breathing it in can make you very sick or even kill you under some circumstances. Things that are labeled “toxic” are poisons. Skull and crossbones weren’t put on packages for a laugh. There are a wide variety of industrial and agricultural chemicals that are toxic enough to kill or seriously sicken you, so read directions carefully and don’t use them around food preparation areas or well water recharge areas.

(If you’d like to get rid of those sorts of things from your own household or small business, mark your calendars for Blair County’s Household Hazardous Waste collection on July 14.)

Look for safer options, both at home and at work. Toxic solvents have been replaced by safer plant-based alternatives. Most paints are now low or free of the VOC’s that gave painters headaches and much worse. Many less toxic pesticides and traps are now available for insects, rodents and other pests. Even non-toxic weed killers are now available. We all aspire to enjoy a long and healthy retirement and a careful, well-informed worker is much more likely to do so.

John Frederick writes on environmental issues every other weekend. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or readers can visit www.ircenvironment.org for more on proper disposal of common hazardous products or details on the county’s collection in July.

Farmers Market Project

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

The way we eat has changed profoundly in the last century. In fact, it has changed a great deal even in the last quarter century.
Unfortunately, the very system that has brought us greater variety has also discouraged the sale of fresh, locally grown food. Even those that might be inclined to buy locally have a hard time doing so in many parts of Central Pennsylvania.

This desire to buy and enjoy more locally grown food is driving an increasing number of farmers to explore local markets for their food and fiber. But that can prove to be a tough field to hoe, both literally and figuratively.

Several local groups have recognized the disconnection between farmers eager to sell locally and consumers excited to get their hands on locally grown fresh food. The Southern Alleghenies Local Food Network has grown from those interested in bringing these producers and consumers together.
At this stage of the effort, the group is trying to gather input from farmers and consumers to better understand their needs and concerns. In an effort find out what the food producers think, the new Local Food Network is hosting a meeting with interested farmers on Wednesday, March 21, 2012 at the East Freedom Fire Hall. (See more about registering below.)

Meanwhile, the Small Business Development Center at Saint Francis University and the Blair County Conservation District are finalizing a community survey to gauge the needs and hopes of consumers. Readers interested in the network newsletter and survey should visit their internet blog at localalleghenies.wordpress.com.

The fact that such a diverse group of partners have come together to improve local farm markets testifies to the many benefits of enhancing local food production and purchasing.

The Blair County Chamber of Commerce has recognized that farming is still Blair County’s biggest industry. Their “Buy Here, Live Here” campaign (that officially kicks-off March 8th) fits hand-in-glove with the network’s effort to promote local farming and local food purchasing. The Chamber’s Coalition on Sustainability, a group of businesses and organizations espousing environmentally sound business practices, has been very supportive, too, as they promote the environmental benefits of growing and buying locally.

The Altoona Regional Health System and their Go Green Committee have joined in as partnersl, hoping to further emphasize the role of eating fresh and healthy whole foods in preventing health problems. The initial discussions with farmers from all six counties in the Southern Alleghenies indicated that there was an interest in a permanent market that would sell goods on behalf of those producers. The vision is a market that would serve local producers and their fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products, baked goods or other foods or fiber produced on their own farms.

A market following that model in Wooster, Ohio recently completed its first year of operation and is still going strong. Another partner in this local effort, the Altoona-Blair County Development Corporation is exploring possible sites for such a market.
The network and its partners are excited about the possibilities but we need all of you to get excited about buying and eating great Central Pennsylvania food, too.

Regional farmers interested in discussing the possibilities to develop these local markets should contact Beth Futrick at the Blair County Conservation District (814-696-0877, Extension 5) to reserve a spot at the March 21st meeting. Earth Matters columnist John Frederick can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Keystone Pipeline

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline through the Northern Great Plains has been in the news a great deal over the last few months. The controversy has become an emotional political issue, political conservatives accusing opponents of being anti-job and liberals accusing supporters of the pipeline as being unconcerned about the potential environmental problems of the proposed route.

As so often seems to happen with divisive political issues like this one in today’s political climate, it can be very hard to sort the facts from the fiction and half-truths. So I hope that we can plow through some of the arguments, both pro and con, with the anticipation of encouraging a civil discussion instead of a accusing those on the other side of the debate as being evil or stupid.

A number of issues have been raised concerning the pipeline. Many are concerned about the damage it might do to the Sand Hills of northern Nebraska. Having had an opportunity to bicycle across this part of Nebraska three decades ago, I can attest to the beauty of the region. The Niobrara River and its tributaries dissect the Sand Hills and together the river and the undulating hills of sand and grasslands make one of the most unique landscapes in America. It is also one that is rich in birds and other wildlife.

Proponents have argued that the pipeline’s footprint will be modest and that it will not be the intrusive sort of thing that a high voltage power line would be.
Opponents respond that even if the habitat and aesthetic concerns are set aside, that this is also about the Ogallala Aquifer that lies under the proposed pipeline. It supplies drinking water to two million people and supports $20 billion in agriculture production each year. A very deep system of water-bearing rocks, it is unlike shallower aquifers here in the east which are replenished after nearly every rainfall. These deep aquifers result from water that has been stored there for very long periods of time and are very difficult to cleanup when contaminated.

Since people in the region are already concerned that the water is being used faster than it can be recharged, polluting it seems especially worrisome.
Yet the builders of the pipeline contend that they are going to great pains to assure pipeline safety. Conversely, the National Resources Defense Council points out that nearly eighty percent of the safety measures are already required by law or federal regulations and that TransCanada has applied to use thinner pipe and pump at higher pressures to save money.

Opponents, both in Canada and the United States, are concerned that this is an investment in an energy source that we should be discouraging because it is environmentally undesirable. Proponents think that we should diversify our energy sources and that the 700,000 acres of sensitive forestland scarred by the mining is small percentage of the total Boreal Forest in that part of Canada.

Clearly, the pipeline and the bigger energy issues it raises are complicated and both sides think they are right. Whatever your opinion might be, we will all benefit from a better understanding of, and a civil debate surrounding these difficult issues.

Earth Matters columnist John Frederick ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) encourages readers to learn more about the Keystone XL pipeline. A simple internet search will provide many websites explaining both the pros and cons of the project.

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