Lazy? Try SkyTruth Alerts!

We built SkyTruth Alerts to give us a heads up whenever something happens that we might want to investigate with satellite imagery.  But we figured if something happens that we want to know about, you probably want to know about it too. It’s the easiest way to get info about oil and gas drilling activity in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and accidental spills and releases to air, land and water of oil and other hazardous materials throughout the US and territories. It also includes special SkyTruth reports on oil spills and other incidents world wide, like recent spills off Nigeria and Brazil, and the bilge-dumping evidence we blogged about yesterday off Vietnam.

And because I’m a geeky geologist, we’ve included global reports from the US Geological Survey on earthquakes of magnitude 5.0 or greater.

The lazy part?  You can use the map to zoom in to your particular area of interest, then click on the RSS or email icons to get an RSS feed or a single daily email report whenever anything new pops up in that area.

Then sit back and let the info come to you….

SkyTruth Alerts map at 10am on February 24 2012.  Drilling activity (new permits issued; drilling commenced) shown as colored triangles; pollution incidents shown as red dots.


Bilge Dumping off Vietnam – February 22, 2012

We’ve posted about bilge dumping before – the practice of flushing the oily slop out of your vessel, straight into the ocean.  It’s illegal in a lot of places, but it is very hard to enforce.  SkyTruth’s daily offshore monitoring program just caught this fine (awful?) example of bilge dumping off the coast of Vietnam, in a major north-south shipping lane about 115 miles offshore:

Envisat ASAR satellite radar image off Vietnam, February 22, 2012. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Zooming in on those black streaks, and turning the image west-up, here’s a closer look at this mess:

Envisat ASAR image courtesy European Space Agency.

More images and analysis after the jump….

The slick at bottom left is 30 miles long. Assuming the oil is only one micron thick – that’s probably way too conservative – we calculate this slick holds at least 16,600 gallons of oily gunk:

Envisat ASAR image courtesy European Space Agency.

Busted!  Sort of.  Following the visible stern wake, we come to a vessel 30 miles away, the likely perpetrator for this particular slick:

Envisat ASAR image courtesy European Space Agency.

If anybody has access to AIS (automated identification system) data, they can probably ID this vessel for us.  It’s location is  12.820307° N / 111.724137° E, heading 33°, time 02:37:19 UTC on February 22, 2012.  Go get ’em!

Hydrogen Cyanide….It Isn’t Just for Delaware City Refinery Anymore.

As you may remember, awhile back we reported about the release of Hydrogen Cyanide at the Delaware City Refinery. The facility had just reopened on Friday, October 7, and on Tuesday, October 18, we blogged about the almost daily report of this chemical being released from the refinery.

As it turns out, Hydrogen Cyanide releases aren’t just reserved for the folks up in Delaware. On February 18, our SkyTruth Alerts system reported a release of this same nasty chemical at a manufacturing facility just outside of Victoria, TX. According to the NRC report, 15 lbs of Hydrogen Cyanide as well as 140 pounds of Anhydrous Ammonia were released from the Invista manufacturing facility due to the hydrogen convertors shutting down. They’re still not sure what caused the convertors to shut down at this point.

According to Invista’s website, ‘you can find Invista inside the fibers of your carpet or rug, the bristles on your toothbrush and the fabric in your clothing.’ And their nylon fibers and plastics are ‘in your car, your office chair, your kitchen appliances, and even your sports equipment.’

This facility in Texas is just 9 miles away from Victoria, TX and just 4 miles away from Bloomington, TX. Victoria has a population of over 86,800, and Bloomington boasts over 2600 residents. That’s a lot of nice people who may be breathing in some nasty junk.

Oak Flat Land Exchange; Proposed Wasterock Storage Piles


I’ve been recently asked to demonstrate the visual impacts of some potential wasterock dumps in Superior Arizona. We’ve acquired the plans for the wasterock dumps. The plans were drawn by Golder Associates in 2010 for Resolution Copper Mining, a company pushing for the privatization of public land for the purpose of copper mining. So we did a little bit of research and learned about the proposed Land Exchange and Conservation Act. With the approval of this Act, Resolution Copper Mining will swap a portion of their private land in exchange for public property, including Oak Flat and Apache Leap. This land was set aside for public use by President Eisenhower in the 1950’s. It has become a well known place for climbing, hiking, and camping and is considered sacred by the local tribes. Anti-mining groups believe that the mining operation will likely destroy much of the area. It will also generate huge volumes of wasterock– earth and rock that is removed to get to the copper ore. Resolution is proposing to build a giant storage impoundment just north of town, to hold the wasterock.

Rendering of proposed Resolution Copper wasterock storage piles. Town of Superior Arizona at right.

Based on these plans, I have rendered a 3D model of the large (permanent) and intermediate (temporary) wasterock dumps using Google Sketchup. I then placed them in Google Earth. We’ve created an image gallery, illustrating how large the wasterock dumps are and what they might look like from various perspectives in town.

Taylor Oil Spill: 7 Years, 1.1 Million Gallons, Still Going

Today SkyTruth released our Site 23051 Cumulative Spill Report showing our estimation of the total cumulative amount of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico at the site of Taylor Energy’s ongoing oil spill that began in 2004. In this report, we conclude:

  1. Crude oil has been leaking continuously from this site for more than 7 years
  2. Estimated cumulative volume of crude oil spilled is between 251,677 and 1,174,492 gallons

Read the full report to see how we came up with these numbers.

Radar satellite image of 21-mile-long slick apparently emanating from Site 23051 on July 16, 2011.  Envisat ASAR image courtesy European Space Agency.      

We created this report using 950 pollution reports filed with the National Response Center (which we presume were filed by the polluter, Taylor Energy) covering 714 out of 2,662 days (just 27%) from the first report of oil at the site on September 17, 2004 through the end of 2011.  We filled in the substantial gaps in this official public reporting record with observations on satellite images, and then computed an Estimated Average Daily Slick Extent.  From that we derived an Estimated Average Daily Flow Rate for each calendar year since the spill began.  Multiply the daily flow rate by the number of days the site has been leaking, and you have an estimate of the cumulative volume of the spill.

There are two key assumptions we used to compute the average daily flow rate:
  • Average oil thickness in observable slicks
  • Average rate of degradation of an oil slick, expressed in terms of a half-life

For average thickness, we used our tried and true standard of 1 micron (1 millionth of a meter); we also computed everything using 0.5 microns to reflect the possibility that this slick is thinner than most.  For degradation half life, we assumed that one half of a given amount of a thin slick of oil on the surface of the ocean will degrade in 3-7 days. We believe this range is a very conservative assumption, because the longer the assumed lifetime of oil on the surface of the water, the lower the implied daily flow rate will be.

Combining all our data on slick extent with the high and low values for each of the key assumptions, we get 4 values for estimated cumulative oil spilled (see the calculations):

Half Life (days) Thickness (microns) Estimate(gallons)
3 1.0 1,174,492
3 0.5 587,246
7 1.0 503,354
7 0.5 251,677

SkyTruth, the Gulf Monitoring Consortium and others have been actively monitoring this site for 21 months since May of 2010 (during what turned out to be the early days of the massive BP/Deepwater Horizon spill), when we noticed on our satellite images another much smaller slick about 11 miles off the tip of the Mississippi River Delta.

Since then, we have analyzed historic satellite imagery back to the beginning of the spill,  and we have waded through the spotty but extensive public record of official pollution reports filed with the National Response Center.   Site 23051 also featured prominently in the recent Gulf Monitoring Consortium report, and earlier this month Waterkeeper Alliance announced a lawsuit against Taylor Energy over the ongoing spill.

Other Sources of Estimates
As far as we know, our report is the first comprehensive attempt to estimate the total amount of oil spilled at this site.  However, the Coast Guard was recently quoted in an AP news article as saying “a total of 12,720 gallons of oil have been reported from daily observations since the spill started in 2004”.

We called the Coast Guard last week and asked them where that number came from, and they told us “Approximately 12,720 gallons have been reported from daily observations (over flights) as of 2/2/12.”   Today we followed up and the Coast Guard told us that this number is the total of all the reports filed with them by Taylor Energy who is conducting the regular overflights, but they could not say how many reports this represents.

We asked them to investigate and get us a breakdown of exactly what they added up to get this number, especially what days are actually covered in that total,  but as of this writing we do not have an answer.   However, if their reporting record is as spotty as the public NRC record, then this number likely only captures a fraction of the true amount.

More on this under-reporting problem coming soon, so stay tuned.

Parting Thought:  Worst-Case Scenario?
The environmental and economic damage from this chronic spill may be relatively minor, although if you ask a biologist and tell her it’s a 1.2 million gallon spill, you might get a different answer than if you tell her it’s only a 12,000 gallon spill.  But imagine that the same event that wiped out Taylor’s platform just 11 miles off the coast, had instead happened at a deepwater platform 100 miles offshore.

More on that later.