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Pa. pressured on pollution

Political Notebook

Years of tense cooperation on water cleanup turned into an open legal battle last week, when Maryland’s governor moved to sue Pennsylvania for its purported environmental failures.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan wrote a letter Wednesday to his state’s attorney general, Brian Frosh, seeking a lawsuit against their northern neighbor for the waste and debris that flows from the Susquehanna River into the Chesapeake Bay. Hogan accused the state of “repeatedly falling short of pollution reduction goals.”

Pennsylvania has long faced pressure to reduce the pollution that flows into the bay. Farm runoff from as far west as Cambria County, and residential and industrial waste from much of the state, flow into local streams and creeks before making its way into the Susquehanna.

Despite years of interstate cooperation and a raft of expensive upgrades to local runoff systems, Pennsylvania hasn’t taken the job seriously enough, its neighbors claim. In his letter last week, Hogan said the federal Environmental Protection Agency has let Pennsylvania off the hook for too long.

Pennsylvania’s ongoing plan to deal with the pollution “would fall drastically short of its agreed-upon 2025 pollution reduction targets,” Hogan wrote.

Even if it meets its latest goals, Pennsylvania would fall far short of its standards, a recent EPA analysis found. For example, on nitrogen — an element in fertilizers that often washes from farm soil into local rivers — the state is set to miss pollution reduction goals by 25 percent.

“The EPA does not, however, appear particularly concerned by the obvious inadequacy of Pennsylvania’s draft WIP (Watershed Implementation Plan),” Hogan said.

Hogan called for an additional lawsuit against the EPA for its lax enforcement.

In public statements last week, EPA officials said the agency isn’t responsible for enforcing agreements like those between Pennsylvania and Maryland — instead, they said, officials track progress and support states working to reduce pollution.

The EPA has been more lax in pollution enforcement under President Donald Trump’s leadership, leaving local and state governments to fight their own battles. Recent rule changes have scaled back the number of rivers and streams subject to federal enforcement.

In a response to Maryland’s planned lawsuits, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf told the Baltimore Sun that Hogan — a Republican — should spend his energy convincing his allies to support funding for environmental cleanup.

“Instead of protracted litigation that will take resources away from our efforts to improve water quality in the watershed and undermine the partnership that has helped make progress, Governor Hogan’s time would be better spent convincing his Republican counterparts in Pennsylvania to support Governor Wolf’s plan,” the spokesman, J.J. Abbott, told the newspaper.

War powers vote draws harsh words

A House vote to force congressional approval for conflict with Iran passed late last week, sharply dividing Pennsylvania lawmakers and drawing criticism from Trump backers.

The vote Thursday passed 224-194, calling for Trump to await lawmakers’ word before military action.

The push for a vote came quickly last week, as a war of words with Iranian leaders turned to violence after the U.S. drone killing of a top Iranian general. While Trump has said the general, Qassem Soleimani, was plotting attacks on Americans, his administration has so far provided little backing — spurring anger from representatives who say they were bypassed.

Pennsylvania lawmakers were split on the vote, with every Republican present opposing it and every Democrat backing it (one GOP representative, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1st District, was not in Washington).

Freshman Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District, a reliable backer of Trump’s foreign policy, said limits on Trump’s warmaking powers would weaken the country’s response.

“The Iranian Regime is no friend of the United States. Attempting to strip our commander in chief of the ability to protect American lives — during the week of an attack on our troops — is the wrong move,” Joyce said in a written statement. “Congress should be standing together against Iranian threats and provocations.”

The U.S. attack on Soleimani, which also killed a top Iraqi militia commander, sparked escalation threats — including one, from Trump, that the U.S. would target Iranian cultural sites. Iran responded with non-lethal rocket attacks on bases in Iraq before both sides appeared to step back.

Reps discuss rural internet fund

With Pennsylvania lagging behind in providing fast internet access in rural areas, the head of a key farm group has proposed a cellphone service tax to fund upgrades.

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star reported last week that Pennsylvania State Grange President Wayne Campbell discussed the idea at the state Farm Show, where farmers and rural advocates were debating faster service.

While Campbell left options open for financing improvements, a small surcharge on monthly cellphone bills could be a start — at least for matching grants and local improvements.

Broadband internet remains spotty across the state. A 2019 study found that hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians don’t have access to the fastest possible internet, while many rural residents complain of slow, unreliable and expensive service.

Federal funds have helped some states expand rural internet access. But in Pennsylvania, debate continues on how best to pay for service — even if lawmakers in both parties broadly agree on the need for improvement.

Wolf included rural internet access as one of the goals of his Restore PA initiative, a broad, gas-tax-funded infrastructure package opposed by GOP lawmakers.

At the Farm Show, state Rep. Rich Irvin, R-Huntingdon, questioned Republicans’ willingness to add a new tax to pay for internet access, the Capital-Star reported.

It’s “not something our state is going to be able to tax our way out of,” Irvin told the outlet.

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