The Indiana County Sustainable Economic Task Force held their annual conference at the Ohio Room in the Hadley Union Building (HUB) this past Saturday.
The task force is appointed by the County Commissioners and began as a grassroots effort of a small business Leaders in the county.
Brian Hillard in Government Relations and Kelly Sanders, the Director of Programs at the Sustainability Energy Fund, spoke about the Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) program, a federal nonprofit which provides financial assistance to property owners for improving climate resilience, renewable energy, access to clean water, or indoor air quality.
Indiana County legislators have not adopted this program yet, but it is active in neighboring counties of Alleghany, Westmoreland, and Cambria.
“This C-PACE lending structure allows for more projects to go through which allows for more local investment and job creation in clean energy equipment and building systems, [a] healthier environment and modernizes the building stock,” said Kelly Sanders.
Unlike other loans, the money is paid back over time as an additional voluntary property tax. It has to go through the county tax process, which is why the county has to approve the federal program.
“It allows for a property owner to have more space in their capital stack and allows for longer term financing, whether it be for solar energy or improved HVAC systems. We got attached to it because of its potential for not only energy efficiency and renewable energy growth, but for economic development in the state,” said Brian Hillard
The speakers encouraged citizens to lobby the county legislators to approve C-PACE. More information can be found here.
The next speaker was Henry Mckay, the PA Program Director for Solar United Neighbors (SUN) and has created the largest solar co-op in all of Pennsylvania. SUN is a national nonprofit organization from DC that advocates for the use of solar and the rights and interests of homeowners.
Most solar owners are still connected to the electrical grid, which allows for it to be used like a battery. The most money being saved is from the process of net metering. In the summer, houses would generate more electricity than they need. That excess electricity would go back into the local power grid and the energy companies would sell that to your neighbors. You then get a credit on your energy bill for the amount of kilowatts that you exported, which you can then use to buy energy in the winter.
In addition to the clean energy, pollution-free benefit of using solar energy rather than oil and gas, one of the most popular reasons to go solar is to protect from rising gas prices.
“As long as our electricity system is primarily based on burning fuels that you have to pump or mine out of the ground and refine and transport and burn, it’s always going to have volatile prices. What happens in Ukraine, OPEC, affects the price we pay here. Nobody can get between you, your solar panel, and the sun,” said Mckay.
Coal Pollution Cleanup
Adriene Smochek, the Evergreen Conservatory’s board of directors, spoke about legacy industrial pollution impacting the quality of our waterways.
“Generations of local residents have become so accustomed to seeing our streams running orange that they seem to believe there's not a way to approve them… It's likely an innocent complacency, but that robs them from seeing the possibility for clean streams, the reintroduction of aquatic life, the revival of boating and fishing, and the possibility of the restoration of our ecosystems,” said Smochek.
Legacy pollution refers to mines that were active before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. Indiana County is in the top 3 counties of Pennsylvania for impairments to waterways.
“I want to be clear and say that by no means are efforts to restore legacy impacts to be misconstrued as something that's anti-industry.. It's an unfortunate reaction of what we've inherited from the ancestors of current mining operations,” said Smochek.
The recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure law invested 11.293 billion dollars into the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to fight legacy pollution, and a part of that money will make its way into Indiana County.
In addition to the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund, there is the Evergreen Conservancy that also deals with mine runoff.
The Evergreen Conservatory is currently working on the Tanoma Passive Mine Drainage Treatment Project. It uses a variety of pools to filter the water to remove those pollutants and heavy metals before it reaches Crooked Creek. Before, the abandoned mine discharged 126 pounds of iron every day into the creek.
Biologist Shaun Busler from Aultman Watershed Association for Restoring the Environment (AWARE) spoke next about the Neal Run restoration project in southwest corner of Indiana County.
The project focuses on removing coal, iron, and aluminum refuse. Orange in the water and on rocks indicates the presence of iron, and combined with Aluminum, it is deadly to fish and other aquatic life.
“The coal refuse pile was on fire for many, many years and I think it actually still is smoldering. They would transport it across McIntyre Road and dump it, and this this area was really dangerous, really high, [and] they covered up this area,” said Busler.
“It is the worst that I'm aware of in the state as far as concentrations [of] coal refuse,” Busler added.
Confluence Discovery Park Master Plan
Dr. Jerry Pickering, a retired IUP Biology professor and the Executive Director of the Allegheny Arboretum Board, spoke about the 2030 Confluence Discovery Park Master Plan.
The proposed Confluence Discovery Park will be located below the Hilton Garden Inn. The strategic placement, and its name, comes from the intersection of the confluences of Whites Run, Stoney Run, and Marsh Run.
“Now if we look at the past history of this site, [it is] a multi-industrial and Brownfield site. There are all kinds of things that have been left in the soil in these areas. This has been a home of multitude of industries, salvage yards, scrap metal, automobiles, and they left a lot of bad [chemicals] in the soil,” said Pickering.
When the Hilton Garden Inn was built, the industrial waste was capped with a layer of soil. The waste has begun seeping out from under the soil and contaminating the waterways.
The goal of the project is to transform the land into an “aesthetically attractive property that occupies an important gateway to the university and to our community,” Pickering said.
The plan is to also create outdoor classrooms.
“Confluence Park is exciting because one of the biggest obstacles to a community laboratory is you can't very well get out there and do much within the space of class time. So, you have to be creative with time, you have to orchestrate these field excursions and that's hard. But having something like this on campus will be tremendous. It'll be a huge opportunity,” said Brian Okey, Associate Professor of Geography and Regional Planning.
The 2030 Confluence Discovery Park Master Plan is available here.
Associate Biology Professor Josiah Townsend was the last speaker.
Townsend runs the study abroad program to Honduras at IUP. He mainly spoke about the internationalization of sustainability education and the importance of examining international examples to assist in solving local problems.
“When you think about mitigating climate change changing ecosystems and weather patterns over the course of 50 years here, we’re already seeing those changes look like with increased rainfall and seasonal shifts in subtropical settings, those will be very useful examples for us when thinking of how we transition our agriculture,” said Townsend.
International education expands the mindset and perspective of students of different backgrounds, and helps them understand holistic approaches to sustainability. Building international connections also helps to break down prejudice barriers for students as future professionals.
Students were able to look at commercial agricultural production, a temperate tropical setting. Honduras has an agricultural infrastructure of homescale production hubs, huertas, organic, pesticide-free food production enough to feed entire communities managed in backyards.
“We use those examples from dry forests and huertas [to ask] how do we divorce ourselves from this obsession with importation, and large supply chains of food, when we have the capacity to produce our food locally?” asked Townsend.
He is working with teachers at the local middle and high schools to create workshops and programs for students and teachers to see the issues firsthand. He is also working to expand the international trips outside of Biology; this summer, Anthropology students will travel to Honduras as well to study indigenous land use and communal land conflicts.
“We want to train these students, the people who can solve these problems in the future. How can we help expand their perspectives, change the viewpoints of the people who will become our leaders?” asked Townsend