Your Environment Update for July 23, 2015

  • The timber rattlesnake is the largest of the three venemous snakes found in Pennsylvania. Photo: Yayad via Flickr

In this week’s Environment Update, we dig into the ongoing debate over taxing natural gas and check out new federal rules to curtail water pollution from coal mining.

Timber Rattlesnake Rebounds in Pennsylvania

The rattle of the state’s largest venomous snake is still a rare sound in the Pennsylvania woods. But a Beaver County man had a fatal encounter with a timber rattlesnake last weekend while camping about 125 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. Thirty nine-year-old Russell Davis was bit, went into cardiac arrest and later died.

Timber rattlesnakes were on the decline for many years, largely because of habitat loss from human development. They’re currently a candidate for the state threatened or endangered species list. But according to Chris Urban of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, recent counts have shown greater numbers than expected.

“It’s a great success story really, that goes through education and management," Urban says. "So we’re kind of excited about the future of them.”

Rattlesnake attacks like the one that killed Davis are rare in Pennsylvania. Urban says the snakes are typically mellow and docile.

“Most people don’t think of them that way. They think of them as aggressive, and that they’re going to strike out at you. And they really don’t do that unless they’re provoked.”

Urban says the state will continue to monitor and manage timber rattlesnake populations.

Debate Over Gas Severance Tax Heats Up

This year, Pennsylvania’s Governor Tom Wolf proposed a 5 percent tax on natural gas to pay for education and environmental initiatives. But Republican lawmakers have come out strongly against it. Now as the two sides continue to negotiate an overdue state budget, Wolf says he’d be willing to compromise on that demand.

“I'm willing to have conversations,” Wolf says. “I want a better Pennsylvania. If I'm convinced we can have a better Pennsylvania with something better than what I've proposed, then I'm all ears."

In addition to the gas severance tax, Wolf is proposing raising personal and income taxes while lowering property taxes. He vetoed a Republican budget that included no gas severance tax.

“He vetoed a budget that fully funded government without raising taxes,” says Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans. Miskin says you don’t need to tax natural gas to pay for state government.

Both sides have met in Harrisburg and reported progress, but say no agreement about a severance tax is imminent.

Reporting by Reid Frazier

Feds Want Better Rules for Coal Mining and Water Pollution

The U.S. Department of the Interior wants to better protect streams from coal mining, proposing a new rule that would require companies that do surface mining or mountaintop removal to minimize damage to streams and restore them afterwards. But some argue that the new rule would have some practical limitations.

“A lot of the science that’s come out says it’s really impossible for human beings to rebuild and recreate the functions of headwater streams,” says Ken Ward Jr., who  covers the coal industry for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia.

Some lawmakers in coal regions of Appalachia have spoken out against the clean streams rule, saying it will kill coal jobs at a time when the industry is already facing tough times.

Meanwhile, environmentalists say the rule isn’t tough enough. The proposed rule is currently in a comment period.