A little salt goes a long way

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .


Salt is a natural substance that is safe in small portions. Just ask your doctor. But in great concentrations, it can be hazardous to your health. Similarly, salt in big piles on streets and sidewalks can be hazardous to the health of birds, trees and other plants, aquatic life and the groundwater.
This photo, taken at the corner of the Boulevard of the Allies near Commonwealth Place Downtown, is what you might call a great concentration. It is a speed bump of salt right up against a drainage grate just waiting to be washed into the slurry of water that will end up at Alcosan for treatment. 
The piles of salt on the sidewalk are likely to drain off in the next rain into a strip of young trees that are already tightly girded by Christmas lights.
As we approach February with hope for mercy from another bout of painful cold, we know we will continue to see those guys with wheelbarrows out there tossing and dumping mountains of salt on sidewalks and roadways for at least another month or so. 
There’s a way to use de-icing road salts and there’s an obnoxious way.
The Journal for Surface Water Quality Professionals reports on the ramifications of excessive salt run-off based on several studies that conclude that excessive road salt causes all manner of ecological imbalance and disruption.
“Road salts applied to roadways can enter air, soil, groundwater, and surface water from direct or snowmelt runoff, release from surface soils, and/or wind-borne spray. These salts remain in solution in surface waters and are not subject to any significant natural removal mechanisms. Their accumulation and persistence in watersheds pose risks to aquatic ecosystems and to water quality. Approximately 55% of road-salt chlorides are transported in surface runoff with the remaining 45% infiltrating through soils and into groundwater aquifers.
“Exposure to NaCl inhibits some soil bacteria at concentrations as low as 90 mg/l, which ultimately compromises soil structure and thereby inhibits erosion control.
“Elevated sodium and chloride levels in soils create osmotic imbalances in plants, which inhibit water absorption and reduce root growth. Salt also disrupts the uptake of plant nutrients and inhibits long-term growth.
“Numerous studies attribute tree injury and decline to road-salt application, concluding that NaCl can cause severe injury to the flowering, seed germination, roots, and stems of roadside plant species. Damage to vegetation can occur up to 200m from roadways that are treated with deicing salts. Up to 50.8% of woody plant species are sensitive to NaCl.
“Damage to vegetation degrades wildlife habitat by destroying food resources, habitat corridors, shelter, and breeding or nesting sites. Behavioral and toxicological impacts to wildlife also are associated with road salts.
“Seed-eating birds may not be able to distinguish between road-salt crystals and the mineral grit their diets require. Laboratory studies of sparrows consuming salt particles at the upper limits of their known preference range reveal that ingestion of 0.25 NaCl particles (266 mg/kg) results in a breach of homeostasis; ingestion of 1.4 particles (1,500 mg/kg) may result in death (median lethal dose = 2.8 at 3,000 mg/kg). This means behavioral abnormalities can occur in small bird species with ingestion of a single salt particle and death can occur with ingestion of two particles.”
“Reports of chloride concentrations in highway runoff run as high as 19,135 mg/l. Salt tolerance of fishes ranges from 400 to 30,000 mg/l, greater than the salt concentration of seawater. A seven-day exposure of 1,000 mg/l is lethal to rainbow trout (NRC, 1991).” 
“Evergreen plants near roadways are especially vulnerable to salt spray damage. Melt water containing salts can leach into nearby soil where plants can take up the sodium and chloride ions as they resume growth in the spring. This uptake may cause stunted growth, desiccation and dieback. The accumulation of salt in soil over successive years may result in progressive plant decline and eventual death.
“Sodium chloride that leaches into the soil may contaminate nearby wells or groundwater supplies. Runoff may enter surface waters. Also, sodium chloride is highly corrosive to cars, buildings and some paved surfaces.”
Reminder News reports on two organically-based de-icing alternatives — calcium magnesium acetate (CMA) and potassium acetate.  They are biodegradable and pose little harm to vegetation but only if used as directed. Too much of these substances can run into surface water and reduce oxygen levels.
Remember that a little goes a long way. And we have a long way to go before the trees start to bud.


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Charismatic pope gathering no moss

Written by Peter Smith on .

rollingstoneOK, how far can this go? Not only was he Time's Person of the Year, not only was he Religion Newsmaker of the Year (according to the Religion Newswriters Association, of which I am an active member), but now Pope Francis is officially cool.

It's a thrill no pope has ever known -- to get his picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone. He may not have the groupies or gurus that Dr. Hook once sang about, but the cover story describes him as an unexpected "change agent" elected by a papal conclave last March that thought it was getting a caretaker:

"After the disastrous papacy of Benedict, ... Francis' basic mastery of skills like smiling in public seemed a small miracle to the average Catholic. But he had far more radical changes in mind. By eschewing the papal palace for a modest two-room apartment, by publicly scolding church leaders for being "obsessed" with divisive social issues like gay marriage, birth control and abortion ("Who am I to judge?" Francis famously replied when asked his views on homosexual priests) and – perhaps most astonishingly of all – by devoting much of his first major written teaching to a scathing critique of unchecked free-market capitalism, the pope revealed his own obsessions to be more in line with the boss' son."

I guess we should be grateful that Rolling Stone portrays him in papal attire, since many of its cover subjects appear without attire of any type.

But the cover shot isn't the only recent papal precedent. Francis also plans to be the first pontiff in decades to attend an international meeting of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, to be held in Rome this June. That movement traces its origins to a retreat Duquesne University here in 1967. Manifestations of the Pentecostal/charismatic movement -- such as lively worship, praying in tongues and seeking miraculous healings -- jumped the Protestant-Catholic divide at that time. 

(UPDATE: Originally we said he was the first-ever to attend, based on this report. But I was informed that Pope Paul VI did indeed speak at an early gathering in 1975.)

Pope Francis, asked about the renewal during that famous in-flight press conference between Rio and Rome last year, spoke warmly of the movement. He disputed the idea that the Catholics had gotten on board as a reaction to the successes of Pentecostal movements in luring away Latin American Catholics:


"Back at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, I had no time for" charismatics. ... ""Once, speaking about them, I said: 'These people confuse a liturgical celebration with samba lessons!'

"Now I regret it. Now I think that this movement does much good for the church, overall.

"I don't think that the charismatic renewal movement merely prevents people from passing over to Pentecostal denominations. No! It is also a service to the church herself! It renews us."


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Why is Pittsburgh so... great? And Portland so...?

Written by Mila Sanina on .

Why is Pittsburgh so great? Why is Baltimore so... bad? And why is Harrisburg the capital of Pa.? 

A recent piece in The Atlantic explored how Google autocompletes results for 50 states "Why is [insert the state] so..." 
So when you type in Google, "Why is Pennsylvania is so...." Google will greet you with "Why Pennsylvania is so haunted...."
The Atlantic made a tongue-and-cheek claim that Google Autocomplete is one way to explore collective psyche.
So we thought, "OK, let's take a look at the collective psyche apropos cities in Pennsylvania and other cities."
How about Pittsburgh?
Why is Philadelphia so....

Why is Harrisburg so...


Let's take a look at Pittsburgh's rival cities...

Why is Baltimore so...


And lastly, why is Portland so... Weird, right? 




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Are we in another housing bubble?

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .


Emily Badger writes in today’s Atlantic Cities about the price creep of houses vis a vis the cost of renting, which could signal a new housing bubble.
According to her article, “How to Tell If We’re Really Entering Another Housing Bubble,” she cites forecasters’ warnings that housing costs are out of whack as compared to rents.
She cites a New York Times piece by Peter Wallison, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, which reads in part:
“Housing bubbles are measured by comparing current prices to a reliable index of housing prices. Fortunately, we have one. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics has been keeping track of the costs of renting a residence since at least 1983; its index shows a steady rise of about 3 percent a year over this 30-year period. This is as it should be; other things being equal, rentals should track the inflation rate. Home prices should do the same. If prices rise much above the rental rate, families theoretically would begin to rent, not buy.
Housing bubbles, then, become visible — and can legitimately be called bubbles — when housing prices diverge significantly from rents.”
The Atlantic Cities procedes from there:
“Over the last two years,” he writes, “this has begun to happen again. From 2011 through the third quarter of 2013, housing prices grew by 5.83 percent. Rental costs grew by just 2 percent.”
The article quotes other experts who point out that what may look like a bubble on a graph that measures rents vs. mortgages might actually be a correction from the late 1980s, when interest rates were historically high compared to rates that are now historically low.


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East Liberty has no parking woes

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .


 Ask anyone in a destination neighborhood what the biggest headache is and if she doesn’t say, “Ohmigod, parking,” she says , “Ohmigod traffic.” It usually always comes down to where to put your blasted car.
But here’s a news flash: East Liberty has a surplus of parking pretty much any time of day, any day. If your only experience trying to park in EL is driving around and around the Whole Foods lot, you might be as surprised as I am.
It just goes to show that you sometimes do need a study.
After several public meetings last fall,the phase 1 (walkability accessibility and parking) draft report of East Liberty's Circulation and Mobility Action Plan is out now with some interesting data that suggest that even with new developments coming on line this year and next, there is enough parking if it were shared and there will be enough, if shared, for the next 10 years.
Zoning requirements of parking maximums have been lashed to the whipping posts by urban advocates who promote planning for a future with fewer cars. Whether zoning minimums would forge a future of fewer cars is another day’s discussion.
Some points from the report:
+ Approximately 1,700 parking spaces are 
unoccupied at noon during weekday peak 
+ If these unoccupied spaces were replaced 
with structured parking, the spaces would 
cost $25M+ to construct, not including land 
+ These unoccupied spaces consume 10 
acres of space in the district. 
+ Everyday these unoccupied spaces are 
underutilized and zoning requirements 
mandate that new development add to the 
+ Businesses, including restaurants, are driving 
parking demand on the weekend like the 
+ During the weekend peak there are more 
than 2,700 spaces unoccupied, about 1,000 
more vacant spaces than weekday peak 
+ Approximately 3,400parking spaces are 
unoccupied during weekend evening peak 
Some conclusions from the report:
"A significant amount of unoccupied spaces (surplus of parking supply) exists during peak weekday and weekend conditions; 
“The issue is not a lack of supply, rather it is the lack of access to the available supply. There are physical and programmatic barriers to parking; but perhaps even more importantly [sic] there is a perception of lack of access.” 


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