Delaware Co. DA takes lead on busting polluters

Jack Stollsteimer proves the adage that elections have consequences

  • Joseph Darius Jaafari
Heyyy, Contexters … u up? I ask because it’s expected to be grey, dark and rainy – the kind of weather that keeps me from getting out of bed. But there’s still an opportunity to be productive, and you can do it directly from your bed. Monday was National Clean Out Your Computer Day, and in the event you didn’t take the time to organize your digital files and delete all those unused programs, why not do it today? Put on some good music, go through your computer files, and Marie Kondo the heck outta your desktop. Does that spark joy?  — Joseph Darius Jaafari, staff writer
Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer announces the dismissal of 1992 shoplifting charges against David Sheppard, who has been serving 25 years in prison

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Delaware County District Attorney speaks at a press conference in early January 2020. (Kimberly Paynter / WHYY)

I haven’t spent much time in Delaware County, but apparently it really smells at times, so much so that District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer might seek criminal charges against anyone responsible for the gas-like, rotten-egg smell reported across the county over the past few months.

And Stollsteimer can do that with a unique task force set up to investigate environmental crimes, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

I don’t know how to stress this enough: This is big news!

Environmental crimes are incredibly difficult to prosecute, though it’s a target rich area. According to the Sierra Club, the vast majority of federal prosecutions and sentencing for organizational offenders in 2015 involved environmental law violators. Organizational offenders, by the way, are entities like businesses, unions or other organizations.

But prosecuting environmental crimes shouldn’t be the exclusive domain of the feds. In the 1990s, the National Institute of Justice urged local officials to get involved in looking at environmental crime as a beat for police and prosecutors, primarily because unless local officials investigate the crimes there is almost no chance of criminal charges. They published a report in 1992 that urged municipalities to broaden their investigations to include environmental law.

“A comprehensive and balanced approach to environmental offenses is needed,” the report said. “This means involvement by all levels of government – local, state, and federal – and coordination among the key cognizant agencies — prosecutorial, law enforcement, and regulatory.”

A handful of DAs across the nation have created dedicated environmental enforcement teams. (Los Angeles, for example, couches its unit among occupational safety investigations.) In Pennsylvania, Attorney General Josh Shapiro campaigned on prosecuting environmental crimes, specifically those committed by oil and natural gas companies. Last year, Reid Frazier with StateImpact reported on how Shapiro is following through by getting grand juries to investigate fracking practices.

But without that political will to look into environmental crimes specific to shale gas at the highest level in the state, it’s anybody’s guess if there will be investigations into other types of environmental crimes.  That’s what makes Stollsteimer’s new environmental crime unit in Delaware County so interesting for those of us who follow criminal cases and the courts.

The Inquirer reported that the unit is currently the only one in the state. If the office effectively prosecutes offenders, it’s possible that it could become a model for other Pa. counties, including those that are heavily touched by the natural gas and coal industries. — Joseph Darius Jaafari

Best of the rest

Brett Sholtis / Transforming Health

Volunteer firefighter David Miller stands for a portrait at North Codorus fire station in York County. (Brett Sholtis / WITF)

  • Who’s helping the helpers?: A study by the Ruderman Foundation found that firefighters and police are more likely to commit suicide as a result of trauma experienced in the line of duty. In 2017, there were over 240 first-responder suicides. And yet, a strikingly small number of precincts or ladders have a suicide prevention program, Brett Sholtis with WITF reports. You can hear his radio piece here.

  • The lone Democrat: McConnelsburg, a township in southwest Fulton County, is Pennsylvania’s “reddest” district (Republicans in the county outnumber Democrats almost 3-to-1). It’s also home to Michael Purnell, a registered Democrat smack-dab in the middle of so-called “Trump country.” The Inquirer’Jason Nark followed Purnell and reported on what it’s like to be a lonely Democrat in a Republican’s world — something many in the bigger cities don’t often experience. “We have really difficult issues to solve, and in this hyper-polarized environment, we’re not able to bring ideas to the table because people are being attacked,” Purnell said. “The ideas themselves are ruled out because they come from the wrong political party.”

  • A fix that won’t fix the thing that needs fixing: Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to use money from horse racing to pay for college tuition – a move that would eliminate almost all student debt for 25,000 state graduates – has one major flaw: it doesn’t make Pa. schools any cheaper. From the Associated Press: “By just about every measure there is, Pennsylvania is ranked at the bottom among states in the level of higher education aid, size of student debt and affordability of its colleges.”

  • Harrisburg’s boom: Harrisburg is becoming a millennial haven, Sean Sauro with PennLive writes. His piece examines the downtown area’s boom, which is driven by young professionals who are looking for a walkable place to live and work. Sauro highlights how the small downtown, local businesses and job opportunities in legal and medical professions have made the area more attractive. And while the piece is a great look at how far Harrisburg has come, I’m going to give a friendly critique to my colleague at our partner publication: What’s missing from the piece is how this growth affects longtime residents of Harrisburg. And particularly, people of color in poor neighborhoods uptown.

  • Pittsburgh brain power: Using artificial intelligence to identify sex trafficking victims, and a robotic trash can that sorts recyclables are two projects by Pittsburgh-based innovators that reached the semifinals of the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE. “The quest for the $3 million first prize began in the summer of 2016 with more than 100 teams. The competition’s winner will be announced by early April,” WESA reports. Read more about the two Pittsburgh projects here.

  • Move it on up: An LNP editorial published Monday says Pennsylvania should indeed hold its primary earlier to give voters hear more of a voice in choosing presidents. “We are firmly in the corner of voter engagement, and an earlier presidential primary — when the outcome is still in doubt and the stakes are higher — is an excellent way to get more Pennsylvania voters jazzed about the electoral process. And our democracy,” LNP says.

  • Juris-imprudence: An Allegheny County judge who went on a racist rant against a black juror in his chambers – including calling her “Aunt Jemimah” and saying her “baby daddy” was likely a heroin dealer — was reassigned to summary appeals last week. The reassignment took away his ability to hear trial cases, but the Pittsburgh chapter of the NAACP today called for his removal. You can read the original story reported by the Post-Gazette here.

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