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Troubled water, voter purge, and at-risk parents

Plus, pessimism rises as budget deadline looms.

A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA

Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
June 29, 2022
'Forever' wait, election cleanup, budget balk, at risk, voter reveal, party policy, and Gay-Straight Alliances under attack. It's Wednesday. Welcome! 
In 2019, state officials confirmed toxic "forever chemicals" had contaminated a water source near Penn State University's airport. Two years passed before testing of residential wells in an adjacent neighborhood began. 

"It went way, way, way too long," Gene Stocker, whose home borders the airport grounds, told Spotlight PA's State College Bureau.

Testing of residential wells started in December. As of May, at least 41 of 50 had tested positive for the chemicals, 11 at levels above the federal health advisory threshold, which has only grown more cautious since.

Now, as the DEP investigation in Benner Township, Centre County, approaches its third anniversary, residents want to know why their wells weren't tested sooner and what the health implications might be.

When Stocker had his blood serum evaluated in March, one of the chemicals appeared at levels around four times the norm.

THE CONTEXT: The chemicals — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS — don't break down naturally and have been tied to a host of ailments, including cancers and reproductive issues. 

Asked why it took so long to test home wells in Benner Township, the DEP said the area of focus — Walnut Grove Estates — is "on the other side of a surface water and presumed groundwater divide."

It's unclear how long residents in the affected enclave have been drinking contaminated water. The DEP began providing bottled water this year to households with wells showing particularly high PFAS levels.

A 2021 report identified firefighting foam used at the airport as a potential source of the contamination. The airport is overseen by Penn State and has maintained "stringent" regulatory compliance, per the school.

The DEP hasn't weighed in on the origin (or origins) of the pollution. Its investigation is ongoing. Responsibility could mean legal liability, though a lack of PFAS regulations makes such claims less likely to stick.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set new health advisory limits for four PFAS chemicals on June 15, including for two that previously had none, per WESA. Roughly one-third of the 412 Pennsylvania drinking water systems tested by the DEP last year exceeded those new limits

"I anticipate there will be many other kinds of challenges that will be raised, and we'll have to see what it is that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decides based upon the combination of both state rights and federal rights."

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner on the implications of last week's SCOTUS ruling that opened the door to more guns in public

» LAW & LOOPHOLE: Join us Thursday, July 7 at 6 p.m. ET via Zoom for a free Q&A on the limitations of the state's police misconduct database and a discussion on other police accountability efforts. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org

A visitor on Robert N.'s doorstep. Ssssssend us your Pennsylvania pics, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
VOTER ROLLS: Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano's pledge to "reset" voter registrations and require all Pennsylvanians to re-register ignores federal law and the safeguards that already remove hundreds of thousands of ineligible voters here. Votebeat examines those safeguards in greater depth and the extensive processes and tools that keep Pennsylvania's voter rolls clean and up to date.

BUDGET BUST: A budget deal continued to elude Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and lawmakers in the GOP-controlled General Assembly on Tuesday. The AP says if a spending plan isn't signed into law by Friday, the state will lose some of its spending power, though it could be weeks before any effect is felt. City & State reports a top budget negotiator in the House is pessimistic that a deal will be struck in time

CHILD SUPPORT: Katie Labus was addicted to drugs when she found out she was pregnant in 2018. A doctor connected her with treatment and a program that offers free support services to 1,300 first-time mothers in Pennsylvania each year. But Transforming Health reports funding for that program is currently at risk, leading advocates like Labus, now mother to a healthy son, to sound the alarm.

BALLOT TEST: A judge in Williamsport will decide whether to force officials to turn over voter-by-voter records for the 2020 election to a Lebanon-based company with links to Arizona's partisan recount, the AP reports. Lycoming County initially denied the firm's request, saying it amounted to asking for the contents of ballot boxes and voting machines, information that the state election code declares off-limits.

PARTY BAN: Airbnb is making a temporary ban on parties permanent, the move coming months after a mass shooting at a house party inside one of the company's Pittsburgh rentals. Airbnb didn't cite the Pittsburgh shooting as the reason, and the temporary ban was in place when that violence occurred, but it says reports of parties have fallen under the policy. Pittsburgh officials are eyeing rules of their own, per WESA.

CLUB-LASH: The first two drag performances hosted by Hempfield High School's Gay-Straight Alliance Club drew little attention. A national backlash followed the third, fueled by right-wing social media. WaPo looks at how such clubs, once havens for LGBTQ students, came under attack.

PRINT RUN: Drexel University's student newspaper The Triangle is back after a two-year hiatus with its first-ever Afro-Latina editor-in-chief, Kiara Santos, at the helm. The Inquirer talked to Santos about her big plans.

WORK IT: A lobbyist gave himself until tomorrow to meet all 252 state lawmakers and find out what their first jobs were. He's met a former paper boy, a fired golf club cleaner, and an ex-cashier, per PennLive.

ON TARGET: Downtown Pittsburgh's long-awaited, 22,000-square-foot Target store will officially open on July 17, TribLIVE reports. The building's 108-year-old bronze clock, a local landmark, will be preserved.

RETURN FLIGHT: The rare, iridescent butterfly called the Hessel’s Hairstreak has been spotted in a Delaware swamp for the first time in 27 years, WHYY reports. Officials won't say exactly where in an effort to protect it.

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

This week's theme: The Great Outdoors
Yesterday's answer: Rucksack

Congrats to our daily winners: Mike B., Cindy M., Kim B., Susan D., Craig W., Becky C., Vicki U., Brooke S., John B., Michelle T., Don H., Susan N.-Z., David W., Kenneth J., Wendy A., Judith D., Elaine C., Starr B., Bruce B., Elizabeth W., George S., Jodi R., Doris T., Beth T., James B., Marty M., Sharon P., Bob G., Patricia M., Kimberly D., Stanley J., John P., Dianne K., Chris W., Kim C., Lynne E., Fred H., and Art W.
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