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Will hydrogen hubs really be green?

A conflict comes amid a boom in the use of hydrogen, which when produced under a specific set of circumstances can be a carbon-neutral energy source.

This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

July 27, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Hydrogen hubbub, pension push, cyber charters, five takeaways, opioid trust, gun checks, inside info, radioactive runoff, and jail death.
As the federal government prepares to dole out billions of dollars to encourage states to invest in hydrogen production to fight climate change, Pennsylvania lawmakers are priming the state to benefit from the rainfall.

But as they make plans to regulate a new and potentially massive industry, serious divisions are emerging, Spotlight PA's Kate Huangpu reports.

The conflict comes amid a boom in the use of hydrogen, which when produced under a specific set of circumstances can be a carbon-neutral energy source.

Also this week, Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents' Association intern DaniRae Renno reports on the push to boost pension benefits for some of the state's retirees

Finally, Renno has the details on Pennsylvania's latest attempt to update the regulations for cyber charter schools and the tall odds the proposal faces with legislative Republicans. 

"You would think after serving for a lifetime you would be able to enjoy these final few years, but you can't."

—Robert McVay, a retired school principal, on how difficult it is to live on his $27,000-a-year pension from the state

» Pa. legislature must show proof before redacting legal bills, court finds
» 5 takeaways from our ‘Missed Conduct’ investigation on Penn State’s post-Sandusky reforms

Lancaster County officials seek clarity on how they can use opioid settlement funds

When Lancaster County officials discussed ways they could use opioid settlement money, they identified their drug task force as a priority. They proposed spending $275,000 a year from the funds on it. 

And after reaching out to the state oversight board that’s responsible for ensuring counties appropriately spend hundreds of millions of dollars, they recently received a greenlight to do so. But the county’s plans remain unclear.

The action and uncertainty illustrate the ongoing debate — which is sometimes occurring out of public view — over how to spend Pennsylvania’s opioid windfall. Agreements with Johnson & Johnson and three major drug distributors are expected to bring about $1 billion to the state over 18 years, most of which will go to counties. Other opioid cases are expected to bring even more. 

As Spotlight PA and WESA reported in April, some counties want to use opioid settlement money to help police officers make arrests. But a range of harm reduction and treatment advocates have raised concerns that such actions could crowd out more pressing needs, stray from the intended purpose of the opioid settlements, or perpetuate a war on drugs mindset. 

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro — who was involved in negotiating settlements with drug companies as the state’s attorney general — has described the settlement money as “earmarked to offer and expand life-saving treatment options.” 

That outlook starkly contrasts the law enforcement plans that some county officials have pursued, including in Lancaster County, where officials wrote that “Preventing Drug Dealers from preying on our community” should be a priority for the funds.

The Pennsylvania Opioid Misuse and Addiction Abatement Trust, a 13-member oversight board comprising various state and local officials, informed Lancaster County’s solicitor of its decision in a July 11 email, which Spotlight PA obtained through a Right-to-Know request.

“In regard to your question about the use of settlement funds for the County’s Drug Task Force; the Trust’s Advisory Committee met and discussed the ask,” the email from the trust said. “The Trust will generally approve the request but suggests having a mechanism in place to identify if the money spent is actually working and keeping drugs out of the jail.”

It’s not clear what the trust was referring to when it mentioned “keeping drugs out of the jail,” and trust officials declined to clarify to Spotlight PA. The trust’s email to Lancaster County also noted that the county’s spending plan must “all be directly related to Exhibit E and the list of approved Opioid Remediation uses” — a reference to settlement documents that include categories of approved and recommended uses. Those potential uses are broad, and the trust’s message to the county said that the full details of reporting requirements are still being developed.

County officials are required to file opioid settlement spending reports by March 15 of each year with the trust, although the trust waived that requirement in 2023. If trust officials determine county officials spent money inappropriately, they can withhold money. If county officials don’t fix the issue, the trust can cut their funds.

Ahead of those annual reporting deadlines, a committee of trust officials also meets to discuss questions submitted from the public and counties, and to draft clarifying questions. But the trust had not posted those responses publicly as of July 25.

Trust officials declined interview requests from Spotlight PA, and in a statement the trust referred to the spending and reporting requirements included in the order creating the trust. The statement did not acknowledge that the trust told Lancaster County officials it “will generally approve the request.” 

Michael Fitzpatrick, a spokesperson for Lancaster County’s commissioners office, declined to say whether the county would move forward with funding the drug task force with opioid settlement money, saying on July 20 that “you have all of the most up to date information that we have” and that discussions will continue to occur at public meetings.

The Lancaster County district attorney’s office — which oversees the drug task force — indicated officials are considering changes. 

“You should … be aware that the request is being looked at and amended to focus on our role in Treatment Courts, and education, used drop-off medication sites and other goals set forth in Exhibit E,” Sean McBryan, a spokesperson for the office, wrote on July 26 in response to Spotlight PA questions. “The request is not finalized, however.” Ed Mahon, Spotlight PA

🏆 HIGH SCORE: Did you stay on top of Pennsylvania news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: School funding appeal, public pensions, and a really big sandwich
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaGUN CHECKS: Nearly two in three domestic violence homicide victims were killed with a gun last year in Pennsylvania, but the Inquirer (paywall) reports a state law requiring abusers relinquish their firearms isn't adequately enforced in Pennsylvania's largest city: The Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office received notice of more than 10,000 orders for relinquishments, but completed only about 13% of the cases.

  This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaPA PENSIONS: PennLive (paywall) reports at least 1,809 retirees are collecting more than $100,000 annually from Pennsylvania’s two public pension systems — a number that has almost doubled in eight years. One former Penn State math teacher collects $1.2 million in benefits annually. PennLive's full public pension coverage includes a searchable database and a list of notable names.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaINSIDE INFO: Eight men currently held in Lancaster County Prison contacted LNP (paywall) alleging unsafe temperatures, delayed medical treatment, and long lockdowns. With a heat wave in effect statewide, the men say their cells are so hot and humid "the walls sweat." A lack of air conditioning isn't unusual in Pennsylvania prisons. A new Lancaster County jail is planned but likely years away.

RADIOACTIVE RUNOFF: There are higher levels of radioactive materials in rivers and streams near Pennsylvania wastewater treatment plants that handle runoff (aka leachate) from landfills where fracking waste is disposed, a new study found. The Allegheny Front reports over 30 landfills in the state accept fracking waste like drill cuttings. And the treatment plants aren't testing for the contamination.

JAIL DEATH: A 59-year-old who died in Allegheny County Jail custody Sunday had been brought in by police on suspicion of retail theft, disorderly conduct, and evading arrest. He had waited for a bed at Torrance State Hospital since April following an incompetency evaluation, the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reports.

» APPa. schools say victory in court is final

» DAILY COLLEGIAN: Paper to receive 100% funding cut by 2024-25 

» LNP: Real-time hazmat info hard to get, even for first responders 

» INQUIRER: What to know about the crisis in Philly’s juvenile jail

» TRIBLIVE: Pitt to raise in-state tuition for main campus undergrads

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

BUG-OFF (Case No. 210)It's an insect, and the first syllable of its name is the name of another insect. What is it?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: A pillow. (Find last week's clue here.) 

Congrats to Dave B., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Annette I., Susan N.-Z., Ted W., Beth T., Jules M., Don A., Michael H., Joseph P., Kirby T., Jon N., Ken S., Don H., Tish M., Norman S., Frederick H., Robert K., and Fred O.
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