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Trump crackers about petrochemical complex in Beaver County

MONACA – The president is crackers about the cracker plant – and job creation and the economy.

He touted all of them – and himself – Tuesday afternoon.

The commander in chief, Donald Trump, was in Potter Township, Beaver County, touring the massive petrochemical complex Royal Dutch Shell is constructing along the Ohio River. Air Force One landed at Pittsburgh International Airport around 1 p.m. and Trump arrived at the worksite about 40 minutes later, to check out one of the most ambitious industrial projects launched in Southwestern Pennsylvania in decades.

An estimated crowd of 5,000, most of them plant employees, jammed inside one of the buildings to listen to the 45th president. He spoke for 69 minutes, claiming successes in ramping up employment in the manufacturing and energy sectors, singling out the Shell Chemicals facility for its progress en route to an expected 2021 opening.

Trump seemed to take credit for the project, even though Royal Dutch Shell proposed it in 2012 and gave it the go-ahead in 2016, both while Barack Obama was in the White House. Work began there in fall 2017, during the Trump administration.

“This is the largest investment in the history of Pennsylvania,” he claimed. “We’ve released America’s energy, and we are restoring America’s heritage of building again.

“This is one of our biggest industrial projects, and it’s made possible by our clean, affordable natural gas.”

Later, again referring to the 40-acre complex outside, Trump said it “looks like the Eighth Wonder of the World.”

The president had planned to tour the ethane cracker facility last Thursday, but postponed following mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas – cities where he then appeared. The trip was rescheduled quickly. This was his first trip to Pennsylvania since May 20, when he attended a rally in Montoursville.

On Tuesday, he got a close look at the first major cracker plant to be built in the United States outside of the Gulf Coast in two decades. The $6 billion project will enable Shell to take ethane from Marcellus and Utica shale gas, then heat it to convert it to polyethylene, a building block for plastics and common household goods. An estimated 1.6 million tons of polyethylene may be produced in a year there.

An abundance of that shale gas is extracted from Washington and Greene counties, which annually are among the top producers of the state’s 67 counties.

About 4,500 construction workers are toiling at the cracker, out of 6,000 to have jobs until production begins. At that point, the facility will have about 600 permanent employees. Oh, and there are 134 cranes on-site, including one of the world’s largest.

A second cracker plant, targeted for Dilles Bottom, Ohio – also along the Ohio River, and 60 miles southwest of the Beaver County complex – is under strong consideration. But that complex has not received final approval.

Trump roundly praised the collective work ethic and resilience of Pennsylvanians, and the dedication of union employees during his hour-plus monologue. He talked about the steel industry gaining momentum, largely as a result of tariffs he imposed.

“Steel was dead,” he said. “We put a 25% tariff on steel, and much of it was being dumped, and steel is thriving again. Steel mills are expanding, many new mills are being built.”

As for the monthslong low levels of unemployment nationwide, Trump said, “Unemployment has reached lows we hadn’t seen since the ’60s.”

The president also hammered his predecessor, Obama, claiming the 44th president said, “’We’d need a magic wand to bring back manufacturing jobs.’ We’ve brought back 600,000 manufacturing jobs.”

Trump closed his speech with further praise for energy and the nation’s workforce.

“We’re seeing the future of energy independence. We have that independence, but what we really want is American dominance.”

Looking across the vast audience, he pointed and said, “You patriots are the backbone, the absolute backbone of this country.”

POTUS protesters were active Tuesday, though not in the immediate vicinity of the cracker plant, which is virtually inaccessible to anyone not working or doing business on the site even on days when a world leader is not visiting.

Environmental supporters, activists and concerned citizens, angry over the president’s tour and wary of pollution impacts the cracker plant may have, also were out. A group of about 100 rallied and marched in nearby Beaver during the afternoon, walking from Irvine Park to Beaver Greens Park in that city.

The president continued speaking at the podium before going out on his plant tour, which was delayed by an earlier rain. About halfway through his address, he sounded like a man seeking re-election in 2020.

“I’m making lives of people much, much better.”

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"Somebody had to know:" PA grand jury report one year later

As parishioners exited Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Washington last week, the afternoon was warm and blue-sky sunny, much like Aug. 14, 2018, in this area when state Attorney General Josh Shapiro released an 884-page report based on grand jury testimony on a very dark topic: decades’ worth of sexual abuse by priests.

Investigators said they identified 301 priests in six dioceses, including Pittsburgh and Greensburg, who allegedly abused more than 1,000 children.

The report made headlines locally, nationally and internationally.

How do some Catholics view it one year later?

“They’ve been watching more,” said one Washington resident who declined to give his name but identified himself as he headed from Immaculate Conception Church toward North Franklin Street as a member of St. Hilary Roman Catholic Church, Washington.

He’s seen the aftermath result in “more projects, keeping the people up to date, that’s about it,” he said, adding that he personally found the information “shocking how long it’s been going on without anybody knowing about it.”

Then he briefly reconsidered his words.

“It was a lot of years. Somebody had to know.”

There have been changes in the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese, which includes Washington and Greene counties, since the grand jury report was made public. One aspect is a drop-off in both the number of people attending Mass and in the amount of money in the collection basket.

According to a news article published in the Pittsburgh Catholic this summer, “Prior to 2018, for several decades average Mass attendance in the diocese has fallen 4% annually, while for several years offertory giving has fallen 1% annually,” a trend seen in many denominations and attributed to an increasingly secularized society, and “in Pittsburgh’s case, one of the oldest populations in the country.

“Over the past 12 months, however, Mass attendance fell 9% and offertory fell 11%.”

The article specifically mentions the grand jury report on child sexual abuse, but also notes that a few months after it was released, “parishioners also reacted to the October 2018 implementation of ‘On Mission for the Church!,’ which led to the transfer of many popular priests and changes in accustomed Mass times.”

Smaller offerings impacts parishes and the diocese. The article on the Pittsburgh Diocese notes it recently had to reduce its costs by $2.8 million, eliminating 32 jobs, a 20% cut in diocesan staff. It also cites a decade-long decrease in Catholic elementary schools by 40%.

The Pittsburgh diocese expanded its Diocesan Finance Council to include every county in the six-county area. Local members among 12 are Laura Coss of Greene County, a member of St. Mathias Parish, Waynesburg, and Laural Ziemba of Washington County, member of St. Benedict the Abbot Parish, McMurray.

The diocese pegged documented payments to assist victims at approximately $7 million, including $4.7 million in legal settlements since the first one recorded in 1991. The total also includes $2.3 million in other assistance to victims and survivors primarily for counseling since 2003.

In late 2018, the Pittsburgh Diocese announced the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, which plans to publish the aggregate amount of payments to victims and survivors by Jan. 1.

“No funds for the (compensation program) will come from ‘Our Campaign for the Church Alive!’, Catholic Charities or any other funds designated for a specific use by the donor,” according to the diocese’s report, Financial Costs Related to Sexual Abuse by Clergy. “Nor have such funds been used in the past to compensate victims.”

In the Greensburg diocese, which includes Fayette, Westmoreland, Indiana and Armstrong counties, the annual, diocesan-wide count of Mass attendance will be conducted in October, but Jerry Zufelt, spokesman for the diocese, said, “We attribute an approximately 4% decline in Mass attendance to the grand jury report.”

However, “weekly giving is matching last year’s. The annual Diocesan Lenten Appeal met its goal of $3.4 million. It generated an additional $1.26 million for individual parishes to keep for their specific needs,” according to Zufelt.

In February, Bishop Edward C. Malesic announced details of a Comprehensive Reconciliation Initiative, including a Survivors’ Compensation program, an opportunity for survivors to interact with a program administrator, as well as access to counseling and spiritual guidance.

Both are administered independently from the diocese by Commonwealth Mediation and Conciliation Inc., a private dispute-resolution company.

According to Zufelt, Malesic has said that as he listened to the stories of the survivors, their pain and their anguish had a tremendous impact on him. Malesic wanted the outreach to be more than just a compensation fund, and he wanted to ensure that the effort was a commitment to listening to and supporting the same people the diocese had failed to protect in the past.

After its work is completed, CMCI will provide a report about the compensation fund to the Diocese of Greensburg, and the diocese, Zufelt said, will make a full disclosure of the funds distributed through this program by the end of the summer.

A woman leaving a recent mid-day Mass at Immaculate Conception who preferred not to give her name but said she’s a 35-year resident of Washington is “all broken-hearted that the priests here – all priests – are stigmatized.

“When it came out about the Boy Scouts the other day, it’s everywhere,” she said, saying of the allegations, “these predators, it’s between them and their God what they did.

“I see people coming together more and more to defend the church. I’m just happy we have this church and such good priests. We pray always for more dedicated vocations, both men and women.”

Noting she has been a Catholic since birth who attended Catholic schools, she continued, “So this is my faith and there is no other. This is not defining us at this church. It’s happening in society everywhere, all kinds of horrible things. I do not dwell on this – it’s not something I think about at all.”

Church closures, mergers

Church closures and mergers also made the news during the past year, restructuring done in the face of declining attendance, financial woes and a shortage of priests.

In October 2018, the Pittsburgh diocese had 188 parishes in 57 groupings. Nine months later, on July 1, the number of parishes had been reduced to 170 in 48 groupings.

In Washington County in February, four Roman Catholic churches in the Mon Valley were slated to close in March: 113-year-old St. Michael the Archangel in Fredericktown; St. Joseph, Roscoe, which dated to 1904; St. Thomas Aquinas, California, a 63-year-old structure; and Saints Mary and Ann in Marianna, a once thriving coal town where the mine closed due to an underground fire.

The closures took place as planned, and four churches are for sale. Parishioners have appealed the decisions to close both Sts. Mary and Ann and St. Michael the Archangel to the Vatican, and the matter will likely be resolved next year.

Greene Countians learned in May that all five Roman Catholic congregations would be merged into one, without closures, which took effect July 1.

Now known as St. Matthias Parish, the merger, which took effect July 1, affected St. Ann, Waynesburg; St. Hugh, Carmichaels; St. Ignatius, Bobtown; Our Lady of Consolation, Rice’s Landing, Nemacolin and Crucible; and St. Thomas, Clarksville and Jefferson.

Zubik, in a letter to parishioners, said the merged parishes would allow “for more effective ministry by addressing serious financial problems, sharing resources and allowing the clergy to focus on the spiritual work for which they were ordained.”

The Greensburg diocese has 78 parishes, the same number as a year ago. Its most significant consolidation was in June 2013 with the creation of St. Francis of Assisi parish.

Prayer and repentance

Malesic announced a day of prayer throughout the Diocese of Greensburg today marking the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. All parish churches in the Diocese of Greensburg will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for private prayer with a special intention for those who have been abused and for the healing of the Church.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh concludes what is officially known as a Year of Repentance on Thursday with the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary. Mass will be celebrated at 6 p.m. tomorrow in St. Paul Cathedral.

Zubik said he chose to do this in conjunction with the Assumption “as a sign of hope and healing for victims and for renewal in the Church through the intercession” of the Virgin Mary.

Zubik inaugurated the special observance last September, asking “all clergy in the diocese to fast and pray for the purification of the Church in light of the scandal of child sexual abuse.”

“Faced with the sinful actions of the members of our own ranks of the clergy, who are called to manifest the example of Christ, we feel both shame and sorrow, and are reminded of our own sinfulness and the need for mercy,” Zubik wrote in a letter to priests, deacons and seminarians of the diocese.”

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One year later, still no laws to address grand jury recommendations to combat clergy sex abuse

Today marks the opening of a one-year window allowing people to file civil lawsuits that were previously barred by state statute of limitations – in New York.

One year after a grand jury report detailing alleged sexual abuses by Roman Catholic priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses, the state Legislature has not afforded abuse victims such an option, even though it was one of four recommendations contained in the report.

The grand jurors called child abuse by so-called predator priests a “crime against society.”

“We’re issuing this report to make that clear, and to push for action,” they wrote.

The report outlined in devastating detail the alleged abuse of more than 1,000 child victims at the hands of more than 300 clergy members. It prompted inspection of archdiocesan files in other states and provoked condemnation from Pope Francis himself.

In addition to pushing for a limited window for victims to file lawsuits, the report asked legislators to remove the criminal statute of limitations to prosecute abusers, clarify the law for mandated reporting and prohibit nondisclosure agreements from applying to criminal investigations.

State lawmakers have yet to make any of the recommendations law.

“I am deeply disappointed that we were not able to complete that process last session,” said state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Carroll Township.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed bills that would heed all four of the grand jury’s recommendations in April. They’ve languished in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“(I) am hopeful they will see further action in the Senate this fall,” said Rep. Ryan Warner, R-Perryopolis.

There has already been further action in other states.

Just in the four months since the Pennsylvania House passed bills addressing all four grand jury recommendations, Washington, D.C., Montana, Arizona, Vermont, Rhode Island and New York all reopened statutes of limitations for reviving expired claims, according to Child USA, a nonprofit think tank.

Connecticut and New Jersey will reopen statutes of limitations later this year.

The state House last September overwhelmingly approved amending a bill to create a two-year window for litigation for victims whose civil remedies already expired, but Senate GOP opposition blocked the provision.

A Senate Republican counteroffer would have given victims a two-year window to sue surviving individuals but not institutions like the church, and provided framework for a victims’ compensation fund. Then-House Speaker Dave Reed, R-Indiana County, rejected the proposal.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the public affairs arm of the state’s Catholic dioceses, opposes a litigation window, noting concern that it could force dioceses into bankruptcy and prevent them from helping victims or performing social services.

Victim advocates, Senate Democrats and Attorney General Josh Shapiro have urged the General Assembly to approve a civil window, condemning Senate Republicans for blocking it.

All House members representing districts in Fayette, Greene and Washington counties voted in favor of all four bills containing grand jury-recommended reforms.

“As a legislature, we must do all that we can to assure that no one is using their position of power or influence to sexually target and abuse someone over whom they have authority, particularly if that victim is a child,” said Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson.

One of those bills would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations on child sex crimes going forward and raise the age limit for civil claims from child sex abuse to 55, from age 30.

“While there remains much debate on whether a window would be legal, with passage of this bill, current and future victims could report crimes committed against them when they feel ready,” said Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-South Strabane Township. “This was a vital step to ensure that we’re not faced with the same dilemma and allow us to hold perpetrators more accountable in the future.”

Another House bill would make ongoing failure to report continuing sexual abuse a third-degree felony if the accused had known or had reason to suspect a child was being abused.

House Bill 1171, which the House approved 191-0, would specify past or future nondisclosure agreements cannot prohibit victims from communicating with law enforcement.

There are multiple civil window bills. House Bill 963, which passed the House 177-15, would amend the state Constitution to allow for a two-year retroactive window for victims whose statutes have expired.

Senate Bill 540, which has not been voted on, would provide a two-year civil window to revive previously expired claims without a constitutional amendment, a step Shapiro said would add unnecessary delay for victims since constitutional amendments must pass both the House and Senate in two consecutive two-year legislative sessions before going to voters for final approval.

Rep. Matt Dowling, R-Uniontown, said a “key piece” of the House-approved reform package was eliminating nondisclosure agreements in criminal investigations.

House Bill 962 would waive sovereign and governmental immunity in child sex abuse claims for damages caused by “actions or omissions … which constitute negligence,” meaning public institutions like public schools and local governments would no longer be exempted against child sex abuse suits.

“It was important to me that victims of not only the church, but also of public schools and government agencies also see justice,” Dowling said.

After passing the lower chamber, House Bills 962, 963 and 1171 were all referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Bartolotta sits on the committee and said she will closely review each of the bills.

She said eliminating the criminal statute of limitations on child sex crimes and waiving the commonwealth’s sovereign immunity related to child sex abuse “must be addressed.”

Meanwhile, dioceses are pushing ahead with their own victims’ compensation programs, which has made it possible that many victims could have already forfeited their right to sue the church.

A six-month claims submission period for the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program established by the Diocese of Pittsburgh to provide compensation to victims of abuse by priests or deacons of the diocese ended July 31, and an initial three-month claims period for a survivors’ compensation program for clergy sex abuse within the Diocese of Greensburg ended May 28, with the diocese still yet to announce if any subsequent claims periods will be opened.

Susan Walsh 

President Donald Trump arrives to speaks Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019, during a visit to Shell's soon-to-be completed Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex in Monaca, Pa.

Columbia Gas executives field questions in wake of N. Franklin house explosion

Amberia Kaempf is still feeling the shock of the explosion that obliterated a former neighbor’s house in North Franklin Township two weeks ago.

“It’s so frustrating,” she said on Tuesday, four days after the Park Avenue house she shared with her young daughter was condemned. “Your entire life has been turned upside down because of it.”

Kaempf was one of a half-dozen people who spoke at the township volunteer fire company during a community meeting called in the wake of the July 31 blast that destroyed the house of Deborah Braden at 100 Park Lane, just off the 200 block of Park Avenue. Columbia Gas quickly admitted it was at fault.

The two township supervisors present – Bob Sabot and Silvio Passalacqua – voted to lift a stop-work order that officials had issued the day after the incident directing the utility to cease all nonemergency work in the township.

Columbia Gas executives addressed roughly 70 meeting attendees. They said the company had been doing pressure upgrade work on its system, but failed to install a necessary pressure regulator at Braden’s house prior to activating the higher-pressure system, allowing gas to enter and causing the explosion.

The utility suspended the pressure upgrade work that was blamed for the explosion throughout the state, Huwar said.

“We will not resume that work until we enhance our customer identification and fuel survey process to ensure that all homes that need pressure regulators will be correctly identified,” said Mike Huwar, president of Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania, adding those changes must be vetted by the PUC.

Bob Kitchell, vice president of construction services for Columbia, said the company would not use the pressure upgrade method for the remainder of its modernization work in the township. It will instead replace existing lines with new plastic mains and then temporarily shut off gas at each house and connect them one at a time.

Huwar said after the meeting that he expected the project to get back underway “immediately” and last for the rest of 2019.

Braden, a neighbor and three firefighters were treated at hospitals for nonlife-threatening injuries or medical conditions and later released. The firefighters were investigating a smell of gas that Braden had reported.

Sabot estimated about three dozen houses were damaged, but didn’t have an exact figure. Huwar didn’t either, saying his company was still working with insurance companies.

Kaempf said she had been renting the house she shared with her seven-year-old daughter, but now there are cracks in the foundation and walls. The ceiling is also lifted, and the family lost most of its belongings.

Her commute to work had been just two minutes.

She found a new place on Park Avenue, but it isn’t quite move-in ready, so for now, she has to make a more than 36-mile round trip from where she’s staying with her parents in Avella.

Earlier on Tuesday, PUC spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said the commission’s pipeline safety division is conducting its own inquiry into what happened and whether there were any violations.

“These are complicated incidents in nature,” said Hagen-Frederiksen. “We understand what Columbia has said since then, but its important for our investigators to complete their work.”