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A No-Go for Noho; MBTA Trickledown May Improve Valley Transit; Efforts to Limit Restraints on Pregnant Inmates Move Forward; and more

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014
AP photo
Vermont senators Patrick Leahy (left) and Bernie Sanders

Efforts to Limit Restraints on Pregnant Inmates Move Forward

A proposal that would ban the use of shackles on pregnant prisoners in Massachusetts took an important step toward becoming law last week, when the legislative Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security released the bill.

A few days later, Gov. Deval Patrick announced that he was filing emergency regulations that would ban the practice in county Houses of Corrections. Regulations in the Mass. Department of Corrections already prohibit it in state facilities. Patrick also called on the Legislature to pass the anti-shackling bill, saying, “Regulation is good but here law would be better.”

The bill, which combines proposals filed by state Sens. Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) and Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), would prohibit the use of restraints on all pregnant inmates after the first trimester of their pregnancies and during transport to the hospital, delivery, and the postpartum recovery period in the hospital. Exceptions would be allowed if a correctional officer determines that the woman is a flight risk or poses a threat to herself or others. While restraints would be allowed in such “extraordinary circumstances,” they could not be put on the woman’s waist and leg. (See “Born Free,” Dec. 31, 2013, www.valleyadvocate.com.)

In addition, the bill would go further than the governor’s emergency regulations by guaranteeing pregnant inmates a minimum level of care, including daily exercise, a healthy prenatal diet and supplements, and screening for post-partum depression. And it would ban correctional officers from being present during a pregnant woman’s medical exams, labor or delivery unless requested by medical staff. In those cases, only female officers would be allowed.

The bill’s progress was cheered by a coalition of criminal justice reform and reproductive rights groups, including NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. “I very much hope the bill passes this session,” NARAL’s executive director, Megan Amundson, told the Advocate. “The fact that we still shackle pregnant women in this day and age is shocking. It is unacceptable that we are putting women’s health and safety at risk.”

While the DOC already forbids the use of waist chains and leg irons on pregnant state inmates after the first trimester and the use of any restraints during labor, advocates want a broader policy that covers all Massachusetts inmates, including those in county jails. The emergency regulations filed by Patrick would provide that wider protection.

Another bill that would ban the use of restraints, filed by state Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton), is also pending at the Statehouse. From the Valley, state Reps. Denise Andrews (D-Orange), Peter Kocot (D-Northampton), John Scibak (D-South Hadley), Ellen Story (D-Amherst), Benjamin Swan (D-Springfield) and Aaron Vega (D-Holyoke) and state Sen. Gale Candaras (D-Wilbraham) have co-sponsored anti-shackling bills.

The Easthampton-based Prison Policy Initiative and the Prison Birth Project, which works with pregnant women at the Western Mass. Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee, both offered testimony in support of Spilka’s bill at a Statehouse hearing late last year.•

 

Pipeline Repair Bill Passes House

By Stephanie Kraft

Even as gas service expands in the Valley, and new gas pipeline is being added to older gas infrastructure, leaks in older pipelines are becoming more common. They cause buildings to be evacuated and traffic to be rerouted, and the threat of explosion is becoming a part of everyday life. Statewide, there are 20,000 miles of gas pipelines, and it’s estimated that there are at least 20,000 leaks in Massachusetts that waste an estimated eight to 12 billion cubic feet of gas each year.

But there’s good news: a bill to upgrade the state’s gas line leak inspection and repair system has unanimously passed the Massachusetts House of Representatives and is now headed for the Senate.

The bill, filed over and over for years by Rep. Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead, would create a three-level classification system for leaks based on their severity. That has never been done in Massachusetts; until now, each gas company has had its own definition of what amounted to a dangerous leak.

The bill would require that leaks of various grades be repaired within stipulated time frames: immediately if they are judged to be very hazardous, within a year if they are potentially hazardous. Other leaks would have to be monitored once a year and repaired at the point at which they become hazardous. The bill provides for gas companies to create rate structures to help pay for repairs to pipelines.

Another issue that may be discussed as the bill moves toward final passage is whether a special priority should be created for leaks in pipelines running through school zones.

Clean Water Action and other environmental groups are happy that the bill has passed the House not only for reasons of safety, but because the methane that comes from pipeline leaks is a potent greenhouse gas.

The Advocate began talking with Ehrlich about the bill late in 2012, after a gasline explosion in Springfield that destroyed a strip club and damaged buildings for several blocks was followed by a smattering of small leaks that caused evacuations of buildings from Warren to Hadley. At that time, Ehrlich had been working on the issue for four years, pushing a bill she had written together with New England Gas Workers’ Association president Mark McDonald. The original bill, Ehrlich told the Advocate, “was basically killed in committee by the gas companies, which didn’t want a bill telling them how to do their business.”

Last year the bill passed the House but was not taken up by the Senate. This year there’s plenty of time for the Senate to pass it before the legislative session ends, and Ehrlich and her staff believe its time has come. “We’re pleased to see that it’s passed the House. We hope that a strong bill will come out of the Senate,” Ehrlic aide Joe Gravellese told the Advocate.•

 

In a Freezing Winter, Lawmakers Want Moratorium on Propane Exports

As Americans shiver in their homes, propane prices are soaring because exports of the gas more than doubled between 2012 and 2013.

U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, along with U.S. Rep. Peter Welch of that state, have written an open letter to Penny Pritzker, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, urging her to “temporarily restrict propane exports” to bring down prices and help struggling families heat their homes. Under the International Economic Emergency Powers Act, Pritzker, as Secretary of Commerce, has the authority to prohibit or curtail the exporting of goods if it will “protect the domestic economy from the excessive drain of scarce materials.”

In Vermont, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the cost of a gallon of propane rose to a record high of $4.13 last week—up from $3.77 just a month ago. The price crested over four dollars for the first time in state history during the last week of January. In Massachusetts, according to the State Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the price has hit $3.81 a gallon, up from an average of $3.06 during times of peak demand last year.

Nationwide, the price has increased 60 percent in the last year, reaching $3.76 this past week.

According to the Energy Information Administration, propane production in the U.S. has risen 27 percent over the past five years because technological advances have allowed energy companies to access propane more easily, as a byproduct of mining for natural gas in shale formations. But much of that supply has been shipped overseas. Propane exports rose from 170,000 barrels per day in 2012 to more than 400,000 barrels per day in October, 2013.

The situation involving propane, like the Keystone XL pipeline and the mining of oil from tar sands, shows that environmentally risky energy production is just as likely to be carried out for market purposes as to make fuel more available and affordable for Americans.•

 

MBTA Trickledown May Improve Valley Transit

The state is setting aside coaches and locomotives from Boston’s MBTA for possible use between Springfield and Greenfield as officials envision the possibility of four train trips a day between those cities. A $12 billion state transportation bond passed earlier this month allocates $30 million to spruce up the MBTA surplus for use in regions outside Boston, including the route from Springfield to Greenfield.

The plan is part of a transportation overhaul that will restore service on Amtrak’s Vermonter through Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield early next year.

Greenfield mayor Bill Martin is enthusiastic about that prospect. “We’re anticipating that it opens the market both ways,” he told the Advocate. “Businesses and corporations and availability of employment would be opened up to Franklin County, and in reverse, there would be opportunities for city dwellers to come to Greenfield and enjoy some of the quaint festivals and activities we have up here.”

“There are people in Greenfield who work in Springfield. If we can get these runs in commuter time sheds, just offering more service attracts more riders,” said Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. Brennan explained that the Greenfield-Springfield plan is a way of optimizing use of the track, now being restored at a cost of $83 million, that will carry the Vermonter north and south once a day.

“One train per day in each direction— to get full value, we need to get more service out of that line,” Brennan told the Advocate. “A new idea... is to get the state to rehab the locomotives and coach cars and run a more region-specific service back and forth from Springfield to Greenfield. It might be possible even to go as far as Brattleboro.”

Brennan said the plan has strong support from the Western Massachusetts legislative delegation, which helped get the $30 million to refurbish MBTA equipment into the transportation bond bill, and from state transportation secretary Richard Davey. Davey said at a luncheon with the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce last week that he “loves” the idea of expanded train service between Springfield and Greenfield, though he cautioned that not all the t’s have been crossed when it comes to paying the costs of such a plan.

Brennan pointed out that more trains will help take traffic off the Valley’s highways. In particular, he said, the deck on Rte. 91 that runs through Springfield needs replacing. The work is expected to go out to bid this summer and begin this fall, and will take two and a half years. Getting more people onto trains would relieve congestion along the heavily traveled interstate as the replacement proceeds, Brennan said.

The transportation bond bill now moves to the state Senate. People who want to see expanded train service in the Valley should call their senators and urge that it be passed, said Brennan.• —SK

 

A No-Go for Noho

Northampton, with its sparkling dining, shopping and entertainment venues just 18 miles up a fast highway from Springfield, hoped to get the designation “surrounding community” as plans move apace for a casino to be built by MGM Resorts International in Springfield. The designation would have made Northampton eligible for mitigation funds to help offset the impact of the casino, which will actually be not just a gaming house but a resort complete with theaters, restaurants and retail businesses.

But last week the Massachusetts Gaming Commission refused to name Northampton a “surrounding community.” In Hampden County, the town of Hampden was also denied that status, while Longmeadow won the designation.

Without the “surrounding community” designation, Northampton loses its chance to get money to mitigate the effects of a casino or even to reimburse it for roughly $29,000 worth of legal help it got to make the case for the designation, plus $17,500 it paid for a study on the potential impacts of a casino on the local economy. But last week a frustrated Mayor David Narkewicz said the loss of the money is less serious than the loss of other benefits associated with “surrounding community” status, a status “which would have required MGM to negotiate with us about ways to mitigate the negative impacts of a casino”—as a hypothetical example, to work out agreements ensuring that the casino’s entertainment venues don’t draw all the popular acts from Northampton’s own venues.

Particularly dismaying for Narkewicz, he said, was the way the state Gaming Commission, in the meeting Feb. 18 in which the decision was announced, insisted on the concept of “repatriation.” A casino in Springfield, the commissioners said, would “repatriate” money now spent by Massachusetts residents who patronize casinos in Connecticut and Rhode Island—an idea Narkewicz notes is as yet unproven. “The gaming comission is talking about all this new revenue that they’re going to be ‘repatriating’ at the same time the Connecticut casinos are talking about all the revenue they’re losing,” he said, “and [the casinos] are basically making a play in Massachusetts to stop the bleeding.”

Also frustrating, Narkewicz said, was the fact that the commission’s own staff said the social impacts of a casino are felt for 50 miles around, yet Northampton, only 18 miles away from Springfield, was not considered a “surrounding community.” “Gaming commission staff said gambling problems embrace a 50-mile radius—the impact on social services, behavioral health, credit counseling,” he said. “We made the best case that we could, but it seems that the gaming commission is very much focused on making sure these facilities happen.”

Current state regulations make the gaming commission’s decisions final, with no possibility for review. In a letter to commission chairman Stephen Crosby before the decision was announced, Narkewicz requested to have that changed, but without success. So the city must accept the commission’s decision, Narkewicz says. In the meantime, he added, his administration “will redouble our efforts in continuing to strengthen Northampton and focus on how we will compete in this new environment. The mitigation piece was never going to fully mitigate those impacts.”

And there may not be a casino if the “Repeal the Deal” movement succeeds in getting a referendum overturning the state law enabling the establishment of casinos on the ballot later this year. At the moment the referendum is the subject of a Supreme Court case because of a challenge by Attorney General Martha Coakley, who said it violates casino developers’ constitutional rights. “I was, and now am especially, a strong supporter of the referendum,” Narkewicz said. “It’s before the Supreme Judicial Court now. We’ll have to see how the court rules.”• —SK

 

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