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The toxic infrastructure criss-crossing Pa.

Plus, Pitt and CMU end legacy admissions.

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A daily newsletter by The logo of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.
Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Lead lines, police probe, sweltering prison, legacy admissions, train derailment, missing children, and 'Operation Phish in a Barrel.'


While the U.S. has spent decades eradicating lead from paint, gasoline, and water service lines, an expansive network of telecom cables covered in the toxic metal still criss-crosses states like Pennsylvania.

The Wall Street Journal reports more than 2,000 lead-covered cables left behind by companies like AT&T and Verizon litter the American landscape — hundreds in source water protection areas or near schools: 

In Coal Center, Pa., medical tests independently sought by the mother of 6-year-old twins, Joyanna and Beau Bibby, and shared with the Journal, showed they had high levels of lead in their blood. The tests were taken a few days after they played in a lot next to their house under a drooping [lead] cable.

Read the Journal's full report: America is wrapped in miles of old lead cables, posing hidden health hazards today.

THE CONTEXT: Officials and residents in Coal Center, Washington County, are aware of the low-hanging lead cable and concerned. It runs roughly one mile into neighboring California, Pa., and is one of more than half a dozen lead lines buried or exposed in the Pittsburgh area.

Borough Councilmember Shannon Bibby's children played under it and later showed elevated lead levels in their blood, though a direct causal link is unclear. Doctors say no amount of lead is safe.

Bibby told the Journal she and other Coal Center residents have been pushing Verizon to take the cable down, but the company said it's still in use. Verizon and AT&T told the Journal they don’t believe the cables are a major contributor to environmental lead and that they're handled with caution. 

Many employees who worked with the lines for years say they didn't know the risks, and some now have illnesses linked to lead exposure.


"We’re not going to solve people’s problems. Who knows their problems? The people here, and they are the people that are going to solve it."

Patrick Harker, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, during a recent visit to State College to tout the Philly Fed’s Reinventing Our Communities (ROC) Cohort Program
Support vital journalism for Pennsylvania: The future of local news is in your hands. Donate now to Spotlight PA.
» What’s next for school vouchers in Pa., via The Inquirer (paywall)

» Pa. poll shows deepening divides on guns, abortion, via WHTM 

» Do state election laws impact results?, via States Newsroom

» Pa.'s severance tax debate resurrected, via StateImpact

» Two bills follow jail phone call reporting, via @JoshuaPVaughn

Sunset in Spring Grove, via Ronnee G. Send us your photos by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.

A vivid orange sunset over trees and a two-lane road.
Today's top news story in Pennsylvania.SHOTS FIRED: Philadelphia officials say a shortage of 911 dispatchers likely played a role in a botched police response now linked to a July Fourth mass shooting suspect there. WHYY reports an investigation is underway after officers went to the wrong address and potentially missed a chance to home in on suspect Kimbrady Carriker a full day before officials say he fatally shot four people in Kingsessing.

Today's second top news story in Pennsylvania.BOILING HOT: Climate control remains a problem at Dauphin County Prison, with freezing cells and signs of hypothermia reported in the winter and sweltering cells drawing scrutiny now. PennLive (paywall) reports officials are blaming staffing shortages for frequent lockdowns that are keeping imprisoned people in cells without air-conditioning or windows for up to 23 hours a day as temperatures soar.

Today's third top news story in Pennsylvania.LEGACY RULES: Legacy admissions are over at Carnegie Mellon University and Pitt. TribLIVE reports the children and relatives of alumni will no longer have an edge in the admissions process at the Pittsburgh schools, ending a long-running precedent. The announcement comes weeks after questions of fairness were prompted by the U.S. Supreme Court's barring of affirmative action in college.

Today's fourth top news story in Pennsylvania.TRAIN DERAILED: Homes were evacuated Monday following a 15-car train derailment in Montgomery County. Twelve residences were cleared out of “an abundance of caution.” One of the rail cars contained silicone pellets and five cars contained the liquid fertilizer urea and a dry cleaning agent / metal degreasing solvent known as tetrachloroethylene. Officials said no hazardous materials were released.

Today's fifth top news story in Pennsylvania.SEARCH ZONE: The search continued Monday for two children swept away in deadly Bucks County flash flooding over the weekend. Five people were killed in the weekend deluge, including the grandmother and mother of the missing children. WCBD-TV reports the family is from Charleston, S.C., and was in Bucks County to visit relatives. The missing children are nine months and two years old.
Investigative journalism that gets results: Spotlight PA's vital work depends on you. Donate now.

WARREN TIPSTERS: The Warren County couple whose tip led to the arrest of escapee Michael Burham after a weeklong manhunt say their dog alerted them to his presence and that they recognized Burham immediately. Cindy and Ron Ecklund think they're eligible for the $22,000 reward.

FUTURE PLANS: Springdale Borough in Allegheny County is mulling the future of its industrial riverfront after June's demolition of a pair of iconic smokestacks there. PublicSource reports on the surrounding debate.

JAMMED UP: Washington County's sheriff says "Operation Phish in a Barrel" is a hoax. After a purported leak of drug enforcement plans around the jam band's concert this weekend in Burgettstown, officials responded.

PA BLUFFING: This shot of Erie Bluffs State Park, by redditor u/incomprehensibilitys, stopped me in my tracks. Uncovering PA has a guide to hiking the "secluded forests" of the coastal area.

NO DRINKING: If you're in the habit of drinking the pool water, the professionals at Pennsylvania's Department of Health say don't. The DOH didn't elaborate beyond the five-word tweet, but Geisinger did.

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. Answers submitted by 5:30 p.m. on issue date will be counted.
Yesterday's answer: Staycation

Congrats to our daily winners: Barbara F., Ed M., Elaine C., Jon W., Don H., Beth T., Eric F., Daniel S., Kevin M., Wendy S., Starr B., Craig W., Kim C., Dennis M., James B., Judith D., Wendy A., Keith F., William Z., Tom M., Stanley J., Craig E., Joel S., and John H.


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