Year in Review: Most Significant Articles of 2012

SkyTruth’s vision is for “a world where all people can see and understand the environmental consequences of human activity everywhere on the earth, and are motivated to take action to protect the environment.” 


In March we shared a particularly striking view of the Gulf Coast – some images illustrate problems, others are simply beautiful. Click here for the full image from NASA.

In the past year we made significant strides toward realizing this vision, and while we have already shared our Top 10 Most Viewed Articles, we thought it would be good to share what we think were our most significant accomplishments in 2012.

Offshore Oil Drilling and Infrastructure

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

We have continued to document the ongoing spill at Taylor Energy Platform 23051, damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Still, the oil keeps coming with no sign of activity to finally plug this continuous leak.  We set up a website to document the unrelenting chronology of spill reports. 

Sea Ice Receding at Shell’s Alaska Drill Sites

We closely followed Shell’s attempts to drill in the Arctic Ocean during the brief summer season. Ultimately, a series of embarrassing failures (including both of their drill rigs running aground, a flattened spill containment device, criminal investigations on the drillship Noble Discover, and the drill rig Kulluk holed up in a remote harbor south of Kodiak Island awaiting salvage assessment and repair) reinforced concerns that we’re not ready to drill offshore safely in this difficult region


On the left, sea ice retreating in early August, but still rather close to Shell’s Arctic drilling operations this summer in the Chukchi Sea.

Possible Contamination from Stolthaven Chemical Facility, Braithwaite, LA The Gulf Coast is home to a significant amount of chemical plants, fed in part by petroleum resources pumped out of the Gulf. In the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, members of the Gulf Monitoring Consortium flew over the Gulf and onshore infrastructure, documenting a number of slicks from storm-damaged facilities, as well as highly visible damage at Stolthaven that forced the evacuation of nearby residents.

“You would think that by now, major industrial facilities planted in the middle of Hurricane Alley would be better able to withstand such predictable storm exposure. But I guess you’d be wrong….”    – John Amos, Sept. 13, 2012

Incident Monitoring: SkyTruth routinely reports on slicks and spills that we observe, including:



Coal Mining and Export

Visualizing Elevation Change – Mountaintop Removal Mining 

Few human activities alter the natural terrain more thoroughly and permanently than  mining, and modern remote sensing allows us to visualize that and measure it very precisely. Using Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) created from aerial survey imagery taken in 2003, and from a Light Detection And Ranging (LiDAR) laser survey flown in 2012, we created detailed representations of the terrain before and after mountaintop removal mining at the Spruce #1 Mine in Logan County, West Virginia.

Growing Coal Mines in the Powder River Basin

Another area that we turned our attention to is the practice of coal export, predominately to Asian markets due to the growing demand for energy there, and cheaper natural gas prices here. If new coal-export terminals are approved in the Pacific Northwest and on the Gulf coast, coal mining here in the US could accelerate. In this article, we mapped the area that has already been impacted by mining on public lands in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, compared it to a more familiar areaSan Francisco — and showed the area under permit that could be mined in the future.


Smog (grey clouds) over China as seen by NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) in October 2010. Increased exports through the Pacific Northwest are expected to find a major market in China and Southeast Asia.

Oil and Gas Drilling and Fracking

Shale Gas Fly-Overs in Pennsylvania and West Virginia
As part of our work on shale gas development in North America, we coordinated two LightHawk flights over active shale gas drilling areas in the Marcellus Shale, documenting the impact shale gas development has on the landscape while showing stakeholders and partners the value of an aerial perspective on these complex issues. Check out the video and our photo galleries.

Waterdogs from The Downstream Project on Vimeo.

Worthy of an entire chapter of SkyTruth history, the FracFocus data release was the culmination of a major effort on our behalf and a significant contribution to the conversation on fracking. With it, researchers and decision makers can finally see the whole picture of reported fracking activity, at least as it is disclosed to the public. There are several critical shortcomings with the current state of “disclosure” (we made specific technical recommendations to the federal government to address some of those flaws), but using the aggregate database we released, anyone can quantify some of those problems and bring them to the attention of the public, regulators, policymakers and industry.
SkyTruth Alerts: Drills, Spills, and Fracks, Oh My!


Here, we plotted the centerpoints of all active Alerts subscriptions in the Lower 48 states and coastal waters. Most subscribers are apaprently interested in the Marcellus Shale play in the mid-Atlantic, and pollution monitoring in the Gulf of Mexico. SkyTruth Alerts are viewed and/or shared approximately 10,000 times each month.

We built this system as an internal tool to help us know when and where to look for spills, but we also realized this system had the potential to be a great resource for the public to stay informed about incidents in almost real-time. In 2012 we significantly improved the Alerts system, adding reports from industry about the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations nationwide, and drilling-related safety and environmental violations issued by regulators in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. 

Other Environmental Issues

Monitoring Illegal Activity on the Open Ocean: Busting Polluters by Satellite

In April we noticed a 92 mile-long oil slick off the coast of Africa, but on this radar satellite image the likely culprit was revealed as just a bright, white spot headed west at the far end of the slick. Using other data collected by satellites, one of our enterprising Shepherd University interns was able to conclusively identify the mystery ship responsible for this mess. We were told, by folks who should know, that this was the first publicly documented case of detecting a pollution event on the open ocean and identifying the responsible party, using only space-based data. 


Micro-satellites tuned to listen in on the location data broadcast by ships (required by many insurance companies to help prevent collisions) recorded the path of the offending vessel. Read more on the blog.
In another first, we are now using the same approach to detect and assess illegal fishing activity in the South Pacific Ocean. This project is will continue throughout 2013, so stay tuned and check back here for updates on our progress! 


Moderate Earthquake in Colorado Yesterday – Related to Fracking?

[UPDATE 3:15pm EST – apparently the answer in this case is “NO” – we just heard from a colleague who works in Colorado:  “These are not oil and gas drilling waste water wells. These are Bureau of Reclamation salinity control wells where shallow brine water is pumped and then reinjected deep to reduce salinity in the Colorado River system. Same mechanism but not oil and gas related.”]—-
An alert skytruther, who describes himself as a retired city environmental health director, gave us a heads up that a moderate (magnitude 3.9) earthquake shook residents along the Colorado – Utah border near the Paradox Valley late last night.  He also passed along a link to the USGS information page on this earthquake.  This statement caught our eye:

The largest historical earthquakes were a M4.4 in 2000 near the Paradox Valley in western Colorado and a M4.3 in 1953 near Green River, Utah. The M4.4 earthquake in 2000 and many smaller earthquakes in the Paradox Valley were induced by brine injection in deep wells. 

“Brine” is drilling-industry lingo for the non-hydrocarbon fluids that are produced by oil and gas wells.  This is mostly water by volume, but often includes toxins — metals and salts leached from deep bedrock, residual chemicals used in drilling and fracking the well, and low levels of radioactivity.  Getting rid of this stuff by pumping it back into the bedrock is an increasingly common practice as the current national shale-gas and shale-oil drilling booms are producing large amounts of wastewater that in some places threaten to overwhelm the current disposal infrastructure

This method of disposal has been proven for decades to cause small to moderate earthquakes, and is strongly implicated in recent earthquake swarms in Ohio, Oklahoma, Colorado and Arkansas.  We suspect this shallow quake (1.2 km depth) is possibly the latest example of an earthquake related to oil and gas activity.

So far the only known example of earthquakes caused by the hydraulic fracturing operation itself, is from Lancashire, England in 2011.  Given the number of disposal wells and fracking operations, induced seismicity due to oil and gas development remains a relatively rare occurrence, but as one scientist puts it “an earthquake even of magnitude 4 in a populated area can be an unpleasant thing.”  Indeed.

Cancer-Causing Chemicals Used in 34% of Reported Fracking Operations

Narrative and Images by David Manthos; Data Analysis by David Darling

Recognized carcinogens are used in 1 in 3 hydraulic fracturing operations across the nation – according to industry self-reporting. Independent analysis of the SkyTruth Fracking Chemical Database by IT professional David Darling found that 9,310 individual fracking operations conducted between January 2011 and September 2012 disclosed the use of at least one known carcinogen. While not all hydraulic fracturing operations or all chemicals used in the process are disclosed by the drilling industry, thanks to the lack of a uniform national disclosure law and exacerbated by the liberal use of “trade secret” exemptions, known cancer-causing substances such as naphthalene, benzyl chloride, and formaldehyde were used in 34% of all fracks reported by industry to

Hydraulic fracturing operation near private homes in Wetzel County, West Virginia, November 2012 (photo by SkyTruth; aerial overflight provided by LightHawk).
Since creating a Fracking Chemical Database, which we released to the public back in November, SkyTruth has worked to quantify some of the issues related to fracking, but our main objective in building and publishing the database was to enable research on the subject by anyone interested. This approach has been fruitful in several ways, such as our work with David Darling, an IT professional specializing in database and software programming, who enjoys working  with complicated datasets for his own professional development.
Darling has built powerful structured query language (SQL) tools to analyze our database and join it to others, which he writes about in very technical detail on his website. For those of us not familiar with database management and SQL language, we provide a layman’s guide to his findings here.
Most recently, we asked him to compare the data from‘s chemical profile Scorecard, originally a project of the Environmental Defense Fund to profile the respective hazards of over 11,200 industrial chemicals. For recognized carcinogens, Scorecard provides a database compiled from California’s Proposition 65 (P-65), source of the familiar phrase “known to the State of California to cause cancer.” Under P-65, California manages a list of carcinogenic substances identified by health authorities such as the International Agency for Reaserch on Cancer and the Environmental Protection Agency’s  (EPA) Toxic Release Inventory (TRI).
Searching 27,000+ reports from the fracking database, Darling found 11,586 separate instances of recognized carcinogens used in hydraulic fracturing operations during the 20 months the database covers. However, in a long list of substances like Nitrilotriacetic Acid – Trisodium Salt Monohydrate (used 259 times) or ethylbenzene (used 134 times), three known carcinogens were used far more than all the rest:

Furthermore, when Darling expanded the search to include suspected carcinogens, a long list of substances from common household chemicals to arsenic and chromium, he found 24,861 fracks (or 90% of all reports) that listed using at least one suspected carcinogen in the fracking process. Understanding that nearly all industrial processes pose some risk to public health, we think the routine use of these chemicals highlights an area in need of independent research and evaluation: What are the pathways for water, soil, and air contamination from hydraulic fracturing that could potentially lead to human exposure? And how often do failures occur during drilling and fracking operations that could result in unwanted chemical migration along those pathways?  Hopefully the EPA’s ongoing study of hydraulic fracturing safety is going to produce definitive, scientifically robust answers to these questions.  Until then, here are a few relevant observations about likely pathways:


  • Spills of raw ingredients or wastewater: Drilling chemicals are transported by truck to the worksite along public roads and often over private land; workers must handle these chemicals to mix and pump them into the ground; and in the end some chemicals return to the surface in wastewater that must be either disposed of or treated for reuse. Anywhere along this chain of events human error or unavoidable accidents can and do occur, releasing chemicals into the environment and exposing workers and/or the general public to toxic substances. Our SkyTruth Alerts system tracks oil and hazardous materials spills reported to the National Response Center, as well as state-issued environmental and safety violation reports in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
  • Air pollution: Unconventional shale oil and gas development  has substantially impacted air quality around active fields such as the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline fields in the Upper Green River Basin of Wyoming, where on some winter days ozone levels are worse than in Los Angeles. From aerosolizing these chemicals through the high-pressure process of fracking, to flaring off gases from the well (which may also burn a number of these chemicals), to evaporating the chemicals from open pits of drilling fluids, water is not the only vital resource impacted by fracking.


The risk of exposure to these chemicals should be thoroughly studied by pubic and occupational health experts, and their findings accounted for in regulatory and policy decisions about drilling and fracking. Full and open disclosure of the chemicals used at all stages of drilling and completion activity — including during hydraulic fracturing operations —  is a necessary element of protecting public health.  We recently provided specific recommendations for improved disclosure to the Bureau of Land Management (which just announced they will go back to the drawing board and publish an entirely new proposed rule for fracking on public lands at the end of March after criticism of the 2012 draft from both industry and environmentalists).
After searching for data from many sources, and hitting what he described as “the fracking wall” around data on oil and gas development, Darling concluded that “’s website at that time was intentionally constructed to make information extraction difficult.”  However, with open access to the information, researchers, citizen scientists, and skilled professionals can begin to unravel some of the mysteries that surround the boom in unconventional oil and gas development.
To read David Darling’s perspective on the FracFocus data and learn more about how he conducted this analysis, visit his website at:




Coal Exports: Are You Safe?

Think you’re safe from the effects of coal exports because you don’t live near a coal mine?

How about railroad tracks? Chances are you either live near railroad tracks or travel next to or across railroad tracks to get from point A to point B in your daily travels.  According to this article from the Monroe Monitor and Valley News in Monroe, WA, there were 18 coal train derailments last year in the United States, with 2 resulting in the deaths of 4 people. A couple was killed when a coal train derailed in a Chicago suburb last July, and in August, 2 college girls were killed when another coal train derailed in Ellicot City, MD.

Neither one of those cities is near a coal mine, yet both dealt with the destruction and sadly, the deaths, caused by these train derailments. And what caused those trains to derail, anyway? Debris on the tracks? Human error? Weather? Another side effect of coal exporting is the hazardous coal dust left behind either when the coal is sitting waiting for shipment or when the coal is actually ON the trains being shipped to the coast for exportation overseas.

Still not convinced? Think about this. In a town the size of Los Angeles or Houston, there might not be too much of an effect on traffic if a 137-car coal train came through town. Those cities are big enough to handle traffic. There are hospitals located all over those cities. But what about a city the size of Billings, Montana? You can see from this blog by our Shepherd University intern Yolandita that there would be a serious impact on the region if the town were to be separated — possibly many times each day — by coal trains of this size. A fire or motor vehicle accident on one side of the tracks, fire trucks, EMS or hospital on the other side of the tracks, and a coal train blocking all of the railroad crossings, literally cutting the town in half, would cause a major delay.  And in emergencies, seconds count.

Living on the coast near a coal-export terminal has its own share of risks.  In addition to the chronic dust problem, severe storms can flood adjacent neighborhoods with toxic runoff.  Check out the blog we posted about the damage done to industrial facilities near Braithwaite, LA by Hurricane Isaac in September. Our new partner in the Gulf Monitoring Consortium, Gulf Restoration Network, took to the air to document similar storm damage and problems at a major coal-export terminal. Here’s aerial survey photography we prepared to support that overflight:

NOAA aerial photography taken September 3, 2012, showing flooded Kinder-Morgan coal export facility and residential neighborhood near Braithwaite, Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Isaac.

So if you think just because you live hundreds of miles from a coal mine, you won’t ever be affected by coal exportation, think again.

Shell’s Grounded Drill Rig Seen From Space – Other Problems Not So Obvious?

Lots of folks lately, us included, have chronicled Shell’s confidence-shaking series of missteps, bad decisions and outright failures associated with their years-long, multi-billion-dollar campaign (technical and political) to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska.  Shell has decided to downplay their latest mishap — losing control of their multimillion dollar drill rig, the Kulluk,  while it was being towed to Seattle from the drilling site in the Chukchi Sea — as no big deal since the rig wasn’t actually drilling at the time.

Uhhh…so we’re supposed to feel better?  Because they can’t get the simple stuff right?  Understand that nothing is “simple” in these often wild waters, but in the scheme of things, if you can’t even move your equipment around without mishap, then how can you be trusted with the relatively complex and challenging processes of drilling and completing offshore oil wells in these waters? Or mounting a swift and effective oil spill response in ice-choked seas?

High-resolution satellite image showing the drill rig Kulluk aground off the coast of Alaska on January 4, 2013. Image courtesy DigitalGlobe. Subscribe to their WorldView report to see more great images.

It’s not just technology failures that lead to disasters.  Bad / risky decisionmaking plays a major part too.  This November 9 news report said the Kulluk had been scheduled to spend the winter downtime in Dutch Harbor.  So why was it being moved? Ostensibly for maintenance work that couldn’t be done in Dutch, but Shell admitted they were towing the Kulluk into the teeth of a major winter storm system in part to avoid paying taxes to the sate of Alaska.  Shell said the storm was unexpected. This analysis of the forecasts for the area by meteorologist Cliff Mass suggests otherwise, raising the possibility that Shell risked personnel and very pricey hardware to dodge a $6 million tax bill; about 1/10th of 1 percent of the total project investment. And guess who came to the rescue of the crew and the stranded Kulluk?  The US Coast Guard, courtesy of US taxpayers. What a deal.

Shell was allowed to start shallow “tophole” work on two of their planned wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas last summer, but they still need to secure Federal approval to continue drilling these wells to their full target depths.  This disturbing pattern of technical and decisionmaking failures suggests the kind of corporate culture that investigators have implicated as the underlying cause of the catastrophic BP oil spill in the Gulf in 2010.

That approval needs to be withheld until investigators, regulators and the public have enough information to confidently make the correct decision. There’s no rush. The oil ain’t going anywhere. And after all, down here in the Lower 48, Shell is producing so much oil they want permission to export it to Canada.

Let’s slow down and make sure we get this right.