Tracking the Delaware City Hydrogen Cyanide Release

We still don’t know yet what the full story is behind the ongoing release of potentially lethal hydrogen cyanide at the Delaware City Oil Refinery that was discovered by SkyTruth this morning, but we can tell you all how to track the incident for yourselves so that you’ll know what happens next as soon as we do.

To be notified of additional reports at this location, you can follow this incident 3 ways:

Over 28,000 Abandoned Wells in the Gulf of Mexico

How’s this for a number? According to data released by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Enforcement, there are currently 24,486 known permanently abandoned wells in the Gulf of Mexico, and 3,593 “temporarily” abandoned wells, as of October 2011.

Permanently Abandoned Wells in the Gulf of Mexico


Temporarily Abandoned Wells in the Gulf of Mexico

These wells range in dates of abandonment from as early as 1948 to August of this year. This includes some “temporarily” abandoned wells from the 1950’s! That is a pretty loose definition of “temporary” in this analyst’s opinion.
In industry terms, the “temporary” label is given to those wells which companies found more profitable to close off for a short time to begin re-drilling at a later date. Thus, “fewer plugs are installed and the seals are not as secure.” 
It is important to remember that even in the case of permanently abandoned wells, degradation of plugs and casings is not uncommon, as many were sealed before strict regulations were implemented or before the sealing technology used today was available.

The obvious question: Are these abandoned wells still capable of leaking oil into the ocean?
Answer: Absolutely.

According to a recent AP report, “in deeper federal waters…there is very little investigation into the state of abandoned wells.” Um, really? Lest anyone forget it was in these “deeper waters” that the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred (a well actually being “temporarily” plugged at the time of the blowout), taking over three months to effectively seal and depositing an estimated 5 million barrels of oil into the ocean. Since those pesky deep waters are so difficult to work in I suppose it makes sense to have minimal inspections there…

However, good news may be on the horizon for this “Ocean of Holes.”  President Obama announced last year that all temporarily abandoned wells must be plugged and all non-producing platforms be removed. 

According to BOEMRE’s data, which is displayed in this analysis, these 3,500 well records are still on the books for as late as August 2011. Guess the jury is still out as to when all those “temporarily” abandoned wells will be properly plugged.

Furthermore, this policy means that if these wells are sealed and no longer classified as “temporary” then another 3,500 wells will become “permanently” abandoned, thereby adding to the number of wells which have traditionally been minimally inspected and maintained.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster called an unprecedented amount of attention to this long-neglected issue and it is crucial that this problem remain one of concern to the public and Congress.

Hydrogen Cyanide Release in Delaware

As the Office Admin here at SkyTruth, I’ve had a hand in getting the SkyTruth Alerts system up and running, and I use the system to monitor both the issues in the Gulf of Mexico as well as in the Delaware Valley. I moved here to Shepherdstown from Southern NJ, I have family and friends that still live back in Philly and I have my alerts set to that area because people I know and love are there.

I’ve gotten alerts almost on a daily basis from SkyTruth Alerts about a release of Hydrogen Cyanide from the Delaware City Refinery in Delaware, right across the river from Southern New Jersey. I downloaded all the data from the reports received by the National Response Center regarding this release and am quite frankly upset by the lack of information put out to the general public regarding this issue. After Googling Hydrogen Cyanide, Delaware City Refinery, the first three results were this page from the Official Website of the State of Delaware, and the alerts from SkyTruth’s Alerts system dating back to October 2. No media coverage, no local interest. Does my family know that they are being subjected to this? Probably not because hydrogen cyanide is, according to Wikipedia, colorless and odorless unless you possess a specific genetic trait that allows you to detect it.

Google Image of the Delaware City Refinery just across the river from
Pennsville and Salem, New Jersey

The report on 10/2 taken by the NRC states that just trace amounts of Hydrogen Cyanide have been released. Yet the report on 10/14 says that 200 pounds has already been released. In addition to Hydrogen Cyanide, they also report the release of Carbon Sulfide, Ammonia, Hydrogen Sulfide and Anhydrous.

Wind direction, according to Weather Underground seems to be blowing these chemicals towards NJ over the last few days. Do you hear that, Pennsville residents? Hello Salem?? You guys listening? And there is no smell unless you have that genetic trait that allows you to smell Hydrogen Cyanide.

This is a great example of how the SkyTruth Alerts system can be useful for citizen monitoring. I’m not a techie girl, I’m not a GIS analyst, I’m a mom, a sister, a daughter and a concerned friend, and this system provides me with a way to see what’s going on in the place where the people I love live, and I will continue to use it to monitor the places I care about.

Alberta’s Tar Sands: In-Situ Extraction Converted to Mining?

Canada’s massive Athabasca tar-sands mining operation in Alberta has been in the news, as the U.S. State Department nears a decision to approve or reject the Keystone XL pipeline.  This proposed pipeline would carry oil extracted from the tar sands through the heartland of the U.S. to refineries on the Gulf coast, where it would be processed and most likely exported to Mexico, and Central and South America.  (Fun fact: we already export more petroleum than we import here in the US, which is why the “energy independence” argument for more drilling is a bunch of hooey.)

Speaking of hooey: the extraction and processing of tar sands bitumen into oil has a very high carbon footprint and uses large amounts of fresh water.  You can read all about it here.

We’re watching the production end of this mess, looking at the steadily growing impacts in Alberta where the tar sands are being exploited, mostly by good ol’ fashioned mining but also by in-situ extraction of bitumen. Google Earth now has 2010 high-resolution imagery covering most of the active tar-sands extraction areas, just north of Fort McMurray, Alberta along the Athabasca River.  There is also a good database of historical imagery in Google, so you can do some interesting time-series analysis.

One thing we noticed – a 7,000-acre forested area of what appeared to be in-situ extraction since 2003 is now cleared and actively being mined.  Industry has been touting in-situ extraction as a more “environmentally friendly” way to produce the tar sands, but that’s just PR bull if they’re going to eventually mine it anyway.

Here are a few examples to get you started on your own skytruthing adventure of this leading environmental issue.  Let us know if you see anything interesting!

Overview in Google Earth showing part of the tar sands mining complex straddling the Athabasca River about 40 miles north of Fort McMurray, Alberta.  High-resolution imagery from 2010.
Detail showing 7,000-acre recently cleared area, at upper right in overview image above.
Same area as it appeared in 2005, using Google Earth “view historical imagery” tool. Area is mostly forested in 2005, but marked by regular grid of dirt access roads leading to small clearings that we assume are well sites for in-situ extraction of tar sands oil.  Compare with 2010 image below.


Recently cleared area in 2010.  Apparently in-situ extraction has been replaced by conventional mining. Area was still forested in 2006 but by 2008 logging had cleared most of the land, and conventional mining operations were underway.  Compare with 2005 image above.


Zooming in even further on the 2010 image, we can see details of the active mining that’s now taking place.


And here is what that same place looked like in 2005.

Legacy of the Past: Over 7,000 Abandoned and/or Orphan Oil & Gas Wells in Pennsylvania Alone

As part of SkyTruth’s ongoing work to illustrate drilling through images, mapping and raw data analysis, analysts have produced a new map illustrating the startling number of improperly abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania.

Drilling in the state goes as far back at 1859 but it was not until the 1920s that legislation required all new wells to be plugged at production’s end, and not until the 1960s that all wells had to be permitted. As a result, thousands of oil and gas wells with no recorded location information litter the state, many that were never properly sealed (plugged) or are in varying states of deterioration; 2,184 abandoned and/or orphan wells in McKean County alone.

This issue has become of greater concern due to increased drilling throughout the state, especially in the Marcellus Shale region. As more and more companies scramble to gain footholds in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and even New York, it is crucial that industry players and local citizens alike recall what past drilling booms have left behind. The effects of a well, even after it has stopped producing, can have serious environmental and health consequences for decades to come if proper regulations are not mandated and followed.

Top 5 counties in Pennsylvania with largest number of abandoned and orphan oil/gas wells