Jan 19: Sustainability Salon on Trains

Due to weather, we made some portions available via livestream.  
Also, here are additional documents on the hazards of extreme freight rail 

The video we opened with is here (kind of Who Killed the Electric Car, but for trains)

Aah, railroads!  An efficient means of transport, to be sure.  I still miss the great travel experiences while we were on sabbatical in Europe;  sadly American passenger rail is a poor shadow of that level of service (and out here in western Pennsylvania it's particularly inadequate.  But as with so many aspects of modern life, trains have been taken to extremes.  For the 84th Sustainability Salon (7 years!!!), we'll continue our annual Wintertime Film Series with a focus on trains traveling through Pittsburgh -- where they go, how many, how often, what's on them, what hazards they present, and changes being proposed by rail companies and by citizens.  
We're used to seeing coal cars passing through Pittsburgh, supplying power plants and coke ovens with piles of Appalachian carbon.  But these days, you're as likely to see black tanker cars filled with explosive fluids like Bakken crude oil -- dubbed "bomb trains" by those recalling disasters across North America, most famously a derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec which cost 47 lives.  

Another relatively modern innovation is stacking shipping containers on top of each other for rail transport -- it caught on slowly, due to limited clearance under bridges and such, but is becoming more and more common.  Double-stacked trains require more clearance, and to my eye they look a bit like Dominoes traveling along on their edges.  One such train derailed in Pittsburgh's South Side just a few months ago -- luckily it was carrying mundane products, and residents and commuters (and other cargo shippers) were only inconvenienced.  Now Norfolk Southern has proposed raising 14 bridges (and adjacent streets) to allow for double-stacks to travel through much more densely-populated areas of Pittsburgh, including more sharp curves and a much higher proportion of low-income households.  Damage to underground infrastructure, ruined parkland, unusable driveways, and property takings by eminent domain are among the problems associated with the construction itself, and once trains start to roll -- up to four times as many as before, each twice as long, and often twice as tall -- the impact on local air quality and the potential for serious accidents are alarming, and residents are raising concerns.

Air quality issues, congestion, infrastructure challenges, and risk of accident also accompany the new CSX Intermodal Rail Terminal in McKees Rocks, where cranes transfer containers between trucks, trains, and barges -- sometimes pouring materials like fracking sand into hopper cars so that fine dust becomes airborne, resulting in health hazards for nearby communities.

These projects are all intended to service society's ever-growing appetite for energy and consumer products -- which we considered at last month's salon -- as well as the looming petrochemical buildout in our region.  Speakers will include Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, on the air quality side of all of these issues;  North Side residents Barbara Telerico and Glenn Olcerst, who are raising awareness of Norfolk Southern's plans and hazardous cargoes in the city;  David Tessitorformer chair of the  SW PA Regional Planning Commission's Citizen Advisory Panel, on the prospects for and potential implications of extending light rail out to the airport;  and Michael Alexander, board member of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail -- which works to expand and improve rail service for our region.  And we'll share a couple of related short films, since it's wintertime!

Following the talks and discussion, and returning to our recurrent theme of plastics -- a major health and environmental issue as the petrochemical hub invades our region -- we’re initiating a monthly dinner-table conversation for those interested in how to avoid pervasive single-use plastics, and how advocacy may be able to limit regional impacts.  To explore this topic in much greater depth, consider attending the kick-off for the What's SUP challenge on Sunday afternoon!  

In February and March (the 23rds) we'll be talking about two different "nuclear surprises." Surprising, because many environmentalists would not have considered ever supporting nuclear, but might just do so after our discussions!  First, we'll look at advanced small-scale nuclear technologies that address most of the concerns about conventional nuclear:  they're incapable of melting down, and instead of burning fuel that has to be mined, transported, and refined, they burn existing nuclear waste.  And in the here and now, many nuclear power plants are failing to compete in the era of cheap gas, but if they're shut down then more gas plants will be built (which will be in operation for many decades, compounding climate damage).  Some states are considering keeping them online for a while while we transition to renewables -- another kind of "bridge fuel".  

WEATHER UPDATE:  As of Saturday afternoon, it's close to 40 degrees F and slated to hold fairly steady through the evening, so the precipitation during Salon hours will be all rain -- and the ground is warm(ish) so it shouldn't freeze to the roads here.  (I'm now convinced that NWS may be a bit slow on the uptake these days because of the government shutdown).  I think many people have been alarmed by the foot or more of snow slated to fall through much of the Northeast, and even in other parts of SW PA;  I've never seen anything like that for this location on any of the online forecasts.  The urban heat island may be a factor;  the northern and western suburbs might have more snow and less rain.  With that fact in mind, and with the help of Mark Dixon, we will be doing a video livestream (probably Facebook Live) -- check here for the link as 4pm approaches (or just check out #NoPetroPA on Facebook, which is generally a good thing to do anyway).  Because of the current milder forecast, I am discontinuing my previous recommendation not to drive down without 4WD.  I think it'll stay warm through the evening, and precip will remain in the form of rain here.  As always, please consider walking down anyway, as there are people with mobility issues who need to park close by.  Thank you!  

Salons run 3-10 p.m. at Maren's house in Squirrel Hill.  Please don't arrive before 3 p.m.  We generally start the program not long after 4pm, after folks have had a chance to meet, mingle, and tour around an interesting and productive urban permaculture site.  After the talks and discussion (hopefully by around 7:30), we break for a potluck supper.  Please email me (at maren dot cooke at gmail dot com) with salon in the Subject line to RSVP (yes or maybe), or click on the link in your EventBrite invitation (if you're not already on my list, please email me with salon in the subject line to be added!).  

Please RSVP each time -- it helps greatly in several ways.  Among other things, attendance varies widely, and these events have been so successful that we need to begin limiting attendance.  So RSVP early if you can, to ensure your participation!  The free virtual "tickets" on Eventbrite may run out (you don't need to print any tickets, by the way, just be on the list).  Also, weather and such can be unpredictable and it's good to know who to contact if there's a change -- and I'll send directions and a trail map on Friday or Saturday.  Be sure to include salon in the Subject line, as I receive a ridiculous amount of email every day.  And if you're new, please let me know how you heard about the Salons!
Bring food and/or drink to share if you can (see below), along with musical instruments if you play.  Check back on MarensList (where you can find information on all sorts of environmental and social justice events) for updates.  And if you aren't yet on my list, if you're interested in Sustainability Salons (and our occasional house concert, simply contact me and I'll put you on my email list.  
As always, I'll be sending out directions and such, and any late-breaking info, to all the RSVP'd folks by the morning of the salon if not before.  So if you don't have it yet, please be patient!  One of these days I'll streamline this process a bit, but for now it takes a while to to dot all my i's and cross all my t's.  (All the extraneous requests for the address don't help;  I have lots of other stuff I send out with it, but don't like to let them go unanswered so it adds hours to my prep time.  If you RSVP properly (see above), you should get the info by the morning of the salon!)

For the uninitiated, a Sustainability Salon is an educational forum, it's a mini-conference, it's a venue for discussion and debate about important environmental issues, it's a house party with an environmental theme.  We usually have featured speakers on various aspects of a particular topic, interspersed with stimulating conversation, lively debate, delectable potluck food and drink, and music-making through the evening.
Past topics have included consumption, plastics, and pollutionair qualitysolar poweryouth activismgreening businessgreenwashing, the petrochemical buildout in our region, climate/nature/peoplefracking, health, & actionglobalizationecological ethicscommunity inclusionair quality monitoringinformal gatherings that turn out to have lots of speakersgetting STEM into Congresskeeping Pittsburgh's water publicShell's planned petrochemical plantvisualizing air quality, the City of Pittsburgh's sustainability initiativesfossil energy infrastructure, getting money out of politicscommunity solar power and the Solarize Allegheny program, the Paris climate negotiations (beforeduring, and after), air quality (again, with news on the autism connection), reuse (of things and substances), neighborhood-scale food systems, other forms of green community revitalizationsolar powerclimate changeenvironmental art, environmental education (Part I & Part II), community mapping projectsenvironmental journalismgrassroots actionMarcellus shale development and community rightsgreen buildingair qualityhealth care, more solar powertrees and park stewardshipalternative energy and climate policyregional watershed issues, fantastic film screenings and discussions (often led by filmmakers) over the winter with films on Food SystemsClimate Adaptation and MitigationPlastic Paradise, Rachel Carson and the Power Of One VoiceTriple Divide on fracking, You've Been Trumped and A Dangerous GameA Fierce Green FireSustainability Pioneersfilms on consumptionLiving DownstreamBidder 70YERTGas Rush Stories, and foodfoodfoodfoodfoodfoodfoodfoodfoodfoodfoodfoodfoodand more food (a recurrent theme;  with California running out of water, we'd better gear up to produce a lot more of our own!).

Quite a few people have asked me what sorts of food to bring -- and my answer, as always, is whatever inspires you;  I believe in the "luck" part of potlucks.  Tasty noshings for the afternoon, hearty main dishes or scrumptious salads and sides for dinner, baked goods from biscuits and breads to brownies or baklava -- and/or beverages:  wine, hard or sweet cider (the latter we can mull if you like), juice, tea, whatever.  The more the merrier!  Local fare is always particularly welcome, whether homemade or boughten.  Dishes containing meat or dairy are fine, though if it isn't really obvious please make a note of it.  We refill a bunch of growlers at East End and provide a big batch of mostly-homegrown pesto (cheesy and vegan), and other things as needed.  More details will come after you RSVP (hint, hint!). 

If you haven't been here before, you may enjoy checking out our roof garden and solar installation (and now apiary!) as well as the many other green and interesting things around our place.  

And if you like to make music or listen to homemade music, don't forget the evening sing -- we typically run the gamut from Irish fiddle tunes to protest songs to the Beatles, and a fun time is had by all.  Bring instruments if you play, and/or pick up one of ours.  Conversations will continue through the evening, as well. 

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