From the Bird’s Foot to the Dogsleg: 2015 in Review

Our most recent trip around the sun was filled with growth and major (positive!) impact for the environment, so we’re inviting you to share in our success. Of course, SkyTruth is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit, so your tax-deductible donation before midnight tomorrow will reduce your 2015 tax bill and help us keep a sharp eye on the world in 2016.

Offshore Energy: For eleven years oil has leaked into the Gulf of Mexico from a point eleven miles off the Mississippi River Delta (aka the Bird’s Foot Delta). Our dogged reporting of this slow-motion oil spill finally caught the attention of the Associated Press. Their investigation ultimately pushed the U.S. Coast Guard to acknowledge a spill rate 20x higher than Taylor Energy had ever admitted. Then in September, Taylor Energy settled a lawsuit brought by the Waterkeeper Alliance and several of our other Gulf Coast partners over lack of transparency about what the company had done to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

In recognition of the five-year anniversary of the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster, we mapped the nearly 10,000 reported oil and chemical spills that have occurred in the Gulf since the oil stopped gushing from the Macondo well in 2010. Once it became apparent that a Coast Guard database we relied on for daily pollution reports would be offline for the indefinite future, our programming team engineered a way to convert their weekly data dumps back into the SkyTruth Alerts you know and love. 

Fracking: We’ve continued our work to map the footprint of drilling and fracking in the mid-Atlantic using aerial imagery and geospatial data. On one very seasonally-themed map we mapped the spooky spread of drilling in Ohio’s Utica Shale, while below we animated a visualization of the drilling boom in western Pennsylvania using your FrackFinder results.

Also of note, the oil and gas industry finally gave in this year on a transparency issue we’ve pursued since 2012. In May, FracFocus.org unlocked access to tens of thousands of fracking chemical records regarding drilling operations across the US. Industry proudly proclaims that they did this voluntarily, but judge for yourself if you think they would have unlocked this data without our persistence over the past three years

Coal and Metal Mining: This summer in Colorado contractors for the EPA accidentally triggered a spill of polluted water from an inactive gold mine, turning the Animas River orange for miles. To provide some context on the problem of abandoned mine lands in the US, we compiled a couple of interactive maps to help visualize at least some of the abandoned coal mines and inactive metal mines in the US.

Later this year a dam at an iron mine in Brazil collapsed, destroying an entire town, killing 17 people, and displacing hundreds more. We used satellite imagery to investigate the impacts of the disaster, and published imagery showing the developments leading up to the catastrophe. Unfortunately, as we wrote this month, this kind of spill from mine waste impoundments is all too common around the world.

Fishing/Marine Conservation: While our programming team is hard at work developing the Global Fishing Watch platform to help tackle the ecological crisis of overfishing, we’ve also come across some major cases of maritime malfeasance.

In January we stayed up late to help the government of Palau catch the Shin Jyi Chyuu 33, a Taiwanese-flagged fishing vessel caught in their waters, and according to official reports had shark fins and illegally caught tuna in her holds. A few months later, after monitoring the movements of a Thai-flagged cargo vessel suspected of “transshipping” with vessels crewed by slave labor, we helped the Associated Press acquire this satellite image. The image (above) shows the Silver Sea 2 tied up with two unidentified fishing vessels in the “Dogsleg” region of Papua New Guinea’s territorial waters

This summer a film crew for National Geographic came to the office to learn more about what we are doing for marine conservation and how fishing transparency can encourage more sustainable fisheries management:

Over the course of 2015, the New York Times launched a now six-part series on the “Outlaw Ocean“, kicking it off with a globe-trotting investigation of the Dona Liberta. If you recall,the Dona Liberta (now known as the Sea Pearl) is a scofflaw cargo ship first spotted by SkyTruth back in 2012 off the coast of Angola at the end of an oily-slick approx. 90 miles long. 

Technology Won’t Save the Planet. You Will.

In 2015 we welcomed three new full-time members to our team, as well as two part-time programmers. Our staff traveled from Chile to Lisbon to talk about Global Fishing Watch, shared our big ideas for conservation at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and convened with mapping and remote sensing experts at Google’s GeoForGood and CartoDB’s State of the Map conference in NYC. Your tax-deductible contribution will help us continue to keep an eagle-eye on the planet and continue to share our vision for a better world. 

As John said last month at the WWF Fuller Symposium at National Geographic, “The answer to the question, ‘Will technology save the planet?’ is clearly ‘no’ — people will save the planet, but technology will give them the inspiration and the tools…”

Now it’s your turn. Subscribe to Alerts, sign up to be a volunteer for FrackFinder WV coming in early 2016, or donate. Thank you!


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Déjà Vu All Over Again: Tailings Dam Failures at Metal Mines Around the World

Catastrophic mine spills have been in the news frequently enough that we are devoting a few articles to cover some of the problems plaguing existing mines and posing serious concerns for new and proposed mines like Pebble in Alaska, Red Chris in British Columbia, and NorthMet in Minnesota. In this post we’re only covering impoundment failures from metal mines and ore processing facilities (we’ll get to coal slurry and coal ash later, and we’ve already written about abandoned and inactive mines).
 
The litany of mine impoundment disasters around the world is a grim one. This year saw the Fundão tailings dam failure that killed at least 13 downstream of the Samarco iron mine in Minas Gerais, Brazil. 
 
 
Above: The village of Bento Rodrigues after the Fundao dam burst at the Samarco Mine. Image Credit: Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images
 

In August 2014 it was a 24,400,000 cubic meter spill from the Mt. Polley gold mine in British Columbia, Canada into the headwaters of the Fraser River (below) only a few weeks before a run of salmon would make their way upstream. However, on Dec.17, 2015, the provincial government announced there would be no criminal charges or fines assessed against Imperial Metals for the disaster. Al Hoffman, British Columbia’s chief inspector of mines stated, “Although there were poor practices, there were no non-compliances we could find.”

 
 
Above: Mine waste and debris enter Quesnel Lake five miles downstream of the failed impoundment at Imperial Metal’s Mt. Polley gold/copper mine. Image Credit: Jonathan Hayward, The Canadian Press 
If a mine can discharge 10 million cubic meters of polluted water and toxic mine waste into the environment, turning a quiet stream into a moonscape, and yet not have broken any rules, one must wonder if the rules and/or regulators are up to the task.  

Looking further back to 2010, a tailings dam failed at an alumina plant in Hungary, killing 10, injuring 150, and turning the “blue” Danube River a sickly, toxic red. A slight silver-lining, however, is that the downstream town of Devecser has risen from the sludge to become a model of green living and sustainable energy.
 
An aerial photo taken Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010 shows the ruptured wall of a red sludge reservoir of the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant in Kolontar, 160 km (100 mi) southwest of Budapest, Hungary. Note the excavators at bottom to give a sense of scale. Image Credit: AP Photos/MTI, Gyoergy Varga

 

Unfortunately, this list only recounts some of the more notorious disasters that reached the international press. For a more complete record of significant mine tailings dam failures, the World Information Service on Energy has complied a list of over 80 major non-coal spills since the 1960’s.   

Yet every time a new mine is proposed, even when the dam would be taller than the Washington Monument, we are reassured that this time we have the technology right, this time the dam won’t fail, and this time the environment will be left just as it was before we mined it. There are techniques, such dry-stacking, which are safer than conventional wet-tailings impoundments, but they are also more expensive. 

So unless the public and regulators demand that mines employ better practices, it seems we will have to keep reliving this story, year after year.


Stay tuned for the next part of this series, impoundment failures from coal mines in Appalachia.

A Message From Elliott

 

My friend and one of SkyTruth’s original board members, Dr. Elliott Norse, is stepping off our Board of Directors after 14 years of tirelessly enthusiastic service.  An internationally acclaimed forest ecologist and marine biologist who founded and ran the Marine Conservation Institute, Elliott has more accomplishments than I can list, but among them: he was an early proponent of the concept of biodiversity and shaped the field of marine conservation biology in its formative years; and he coined the name SkyTruth. So, in a very literal way, we owe our identity to him.

And in a era where ecopragmatism is on the upswing, and tactical compromises and tradeoffs are redefining environmentalism, Elliott has always been an ardent ecospiritualist:  a guiding star to keep us inspired to work on behalf of conservation, not just because it’s something that benefits humankind, but because it’s the right thing, the moral thing, to do.

We’ve benefited greatly from his wit and wisdom, his generosity and leadership.  I know Elliott is still just a phone call away, and we’ll be able to drop in and get his thoughts when we’re wrestling with decisions large and small, and in need of some perspective.  I can’t complain: we’ve had a good run with Elliott, and because of Elliott, and for that I am deeply grateful.

Thank you Elliott, from your friend, admirer and colleague,

John Amos
President

With Elliott’s permission, I’d like to share his message to our Board:

Dear SkyTruth boardies,

There are 2 kinds of actors: those who don’t know when to get off the stage and those who do.

Timing is everything.  Now that SkyTruth is rapidly ascending and I see how smart and devoted our boardies are to John’s vision, SkyTruth’s methods and our crucial conservation mission, it is my sad but heartfelt pleasure to tell you that I am resigning from SkyTruth’s Board of Directors effective 12/31/15, when I am also resigning my day job at Marine Conservation Institute.

I’ve had the pleasure and honor of knowing John since 1985 or so.  30 years.  And I’ve seen how he’s used his talent—which in the for-profit world would have made him rich—to make our world a better place.

John has great vision, a great heart, a great presence as a speaker and very good luck when it comes to choosing the people around him.  You make him even better at what he does so brilliantly.

As you all know, how humans relate to our planet is absolutely key to the complex systems of business, society, politics and ecology.  It’s not easy to understand the behavior of complex systems because we don’t see all that they do until they do it.  But one thing we know about complex systems is that they tend to resist change until they pass an inflection point (or tipping point, as people now see it, thanks to Malcolm Gladwell), the moment when systems reorganize.  Nonlinearity is a defining characteristic of complex systems.  And my sense is that SkyTruth is positioned to become a much more important part of the most important of global conversations: the one about what to do to our blue, white, green and brown planet, on which we and all our progeny live.

I’ve devoted years to seeing SkyTruth succeed, and I now want to watch it ascend to a new level of influence over what people are doing to the Earth and one another.  SkyTruth is about seeing and depicting the environmental truths—local, regional, national and global—on land, freshwaters and the sea.  By taking a satellite’s view (backing off to take in the greater context), SkyTruth provides the iconic views and analyses of big things that are happening on our planet, from the structural failure of coal ash dams and the regulatory failure of mine reclamation to the hemorrhaging of oil leaks and the metastasis of illegal fishing far out at sea.  And with more than a billion people armed with phones that can photograph time-stamped geolocated human activities, SkyTruth has the gravitas and technological savvy to interpret these iconic images for a worldwide network of individual citizens, advocacy organizations and government agencies.  The stars are aligning for SkyTruth’s ascent into a higher orbit, as they are for Marine Conservation Institute.  These outstanding nonprofits deserve to have younger, fresher minds to help our staffs do great things for this truly unique real estate we inhabit.  After working on small, not-so-small and really big things for well over a decade, SkyTruth has shown special capacity to see and understand how things happen and affect nature and people.

John, Paul and their team have done a brilliant job.  Their successes are not one-offs; SkyTruth has all the elements needed to reach a higher orbit.

I think our board needs a few scientists who have exceptional vision, strong pro-Earth ethics and the ability to integrate nature and people.  I think we need more contacts in both the nonprofit environmental advocacy community and the for-profit world of business (the government people who see your products will be compelled to flock to you).  And SkyTruth needs lots more money to succeed, as we all want it to.  So this is the time for SkyTruth’s strategic revisioning and rebooting, keeping our other boardies but also upgrading the geographical ecology position(s) and adding formal economics and social marketing savvy, giving us both substantive credibility and the ability to move lots more people now, while there’s still a brief window of time to succeed.

Worry not for me.  I’ve spent more than 37 years fighting to save the Earth I love.  Now I’m ready to take better care of my health and my loved ones, to grow my vegies, to watch my amazing backyard birds, to read, to think and do whatever life brings me.  If I’ve done good things for this organization and Marine Conservation Institute, I feel it’s the right time to quit while I still have some relevance, not to wait until I’m no longer good enough to play a game this important.  I’m exiting my way, and it feels really good.

Knowing that our baby is in very good hands allows me to leave the stage now.  I’m not going to disappear, so if John, Paul or any of you needs to talk, I’ll still be at this email and phone number.  If I don’t answer, please know it’s not because I’m hunting for funding or meeting with the most powerful people who’ll give me an audience; it’s because I’m working out, watching hummingbirds feed from flowers I’ve planted specifically for them, caring for my beautiful grandchildren (they don’t have any of my genes!), traveling with my wonderful wife of 23 years, reading a novel or doing something else that’s physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually rewarding.  Don’t worry about me.  Just do really good things for SkyTruth and I’ll watch your progress and celebrate.

Thank you all for the great privilege of working with you.

Peace and love for you and for the Earth,

Elliott

Oil Slicks Significantly Diminished at SOCAR #10

SkyTruth has been tracking a fire and oil spill in the Caspian Sea from an aging platform operated by SOCAR, the Azerbaijani state-owned oil company. However, an image collected yesterday (Dec. 20) by Sentinel 1A, a radar satellite operated by the European Space Agency (ESA) shows that the 357 square kilometer oil slick observed on Dec. 13 has mostly dissipated.

SOCAR-10_12_21_2015_S1A_Annotated


At this point, the slick observed coming from the damaged platform is 6-8 kilometers long, but without substantial width. This is a significant decrease from the slick observed on the 13th, which according to our calculations amounted to more than 90,000 gallons of oil. However, the area is not completely in the clear as oil spills are business as usual from aging infrastructure like Neft Daşları, a mega-platform built by Soviet Engineers in 1949.

Nevertheless, the fire was still burning today, as evidenced by the heat signature visible on the 7-2-1 band combination from MODIS. The imagery from Dec. 21 is cloud-obscured, but the image from Dec. 19 offers a clearer view (below).

2015_12_19_A_7-2-1



Truth Elusive as Oil Slicks Spread in Caspian Sea

Last week we reported that heavy seas and high winds in the Caspian Sea were suspected to be the cause of a fatal accident at the SOCAR #10 Platform in the Caspian Sea. The platform is operated by SOCAR, the Azerbaijani state oil company, and is located in the Gunashli oil field approximately 65 miles ESE of Baku, Azerbaijan. Based on two radar satellite images collected since the fire began on December 4, we estimate that least 95,000 gallons of oil have been spilled into the Caspian Sea.

Caspian_Sea_S1A_Dec_13_v3
Above: The most recent image of the Gunashli oilfield reveals a 357 square kilometer oil slick. The image was collected on Dec. 13 by Sentinel 1A,, a radar satellite operated by the European Space Agency (ESA).


The slick has moved to the north since the first satellite image was collected on Dec. 7. After analyzing that first image, we identified a 192 sq. km oil slick, which we estimated contained 50,000 gallons of oilLooking at low-resolution daily imagery from NASA, we last saw a major smoke plume from the site on Dec. 8, but continued to see a heat signature on the 7-2-1 band imagery from Dec. 12 and Dec. 15. The site has been obscured by clouds from Dec. 15 to the present.    

News from Azerbaijan is, at best, hard to come by; at worst, downright contradictory. Since the disaster SOCAR has only issued two press releases on the subject in English, the most recent of which from Dec. 11 emphatically states that, “During the monitoring no signs of oil spills have been observed at the accident area.” On Dec. 16th (or 17th, the timestamps don’t match up), SOCAR has issued a press release in Azeri, and while we aren’t fluent in Azeri, regional media reports confirm that SOCAR is sticking to their story

 
Even more intriguing are seemingly conflicting reports from local news website Ozu.az. The Russian language version of the article appears to accurately report the 300+ sq. km oil spill observed by Sentinel 1A, including a wide-frame satellite image of the smoke plume. Meanwhile the Azeri language version of the article, posted a mere 41 minutes after the Russian version went up, seems to be largely copied-and-pasted from the SOCAR press release, contains no image of the spill site, and does not appear to mention anything about Sentinel 1A or the 300 sq. km. oil spill. 
 

Again, we’re not fluent or even conversant in Azeri (and only partially in Russian), so please check out the articles side-by-side and let us know what you think in the comments. 

One thing is certain, the storm which caused this disaster was certainly a major weather event. Satellite-based sea-surface scatterometry shows the winds on Dec. 4th exceeded 40 knots (46 MPH) in the Gunashli oilfield. 

WMBas181

Combined with the relatively shallow depth of the oilfield (100-400 meters), it is not a surprise that this storm kicked up massive waves. Nearby, at the aging offshore settlement of Neft Daşları (the “Oil Rocks”), three workers were killed in a separate accident on the very same day (Dec. 4) when their living quarters “fell into the sea” (see also press release from SOCAR). The search continues for workers from Platform #10 who are still missing after their lifeboat was reported to have prematurely dropped from the burning platform into the raging sea.

We will continue to track this story and available satellite imagery.

###

 

 

Fire, Smoke, and Slicks Observed in the Caspian Sea

On Dec. 4, high wind and high seas are believed to be at least partly responsible for a fatal fire at an oil platform in the Caspian Sea.  Reports from a local worker’s association put the death toll at 32, though those reports have not been confirmed by SOCAR, the Azerbaijani state oil company which operates Platform #10 in thGunashli oil field. 



According to a statement on SOCAR’s website dated December 11, “no signs of oil spills have been observed at the accident area.” However, a Sentinel 1A satellite image collected by the European Space Agency a few days earlier on December 7 suggests a different story. 

We observe a dark slick measuring 192 square kilometers in area, and appearing to originate from the same coordinates as the fire and smoke plume seen on these MODIS satellite images. Assuming this is oil, and operating on the conservative estimate that this slick is only one micron thick, that 192 sq. km. slick translates to over 50,000 gallons of contaminant. Furthermore, that does not count the many other smaller oil slicks that we routinely see emanating from the surrounding, aging infrastructure in the Caspian Sea

Intriguingly, the Dec. 11 statement from SOCAR also implies that the company will be monitoring the site using daily satellite images obtained from ”Azercosmos’, which turns out to be the state-owned satellite service provider. Azercosmos operates a small fleet of satellites including “Azersky”, an earth observation satellite launched last summer.

If this report sounds familiar, then you should recall that we followed as gas well blowout at the SOCAR #90 well back in 2013. 

Rising Waste Levels Observed at Samarco Prior to Disaster

Satellite imagery collected in the months leading up to the catastrophic Samarco mine disaster on November 5 in Minas Gerais, Brazil reveal a substantial increase in the amount of water and mine waste being stored behind the now failed Fundão Dam. Images taken by the satellite Earth-imaging company Planet Labs two months before the dam collapse show that Samarco, co-owned by BHP Billiton and Vale SA, were acting on their plans to raise the height of the dam. Compared to 2013 Astrium imagery in Google Earth, additional structures appear at the top of the dam, trees have been cleared and roads have been cut to accommodate the heightened level of waste in the reportedly 55 million cubic meter impoundment:

On the left side of the image you can see that by September 2015 the fluid level had risen substantially since May 2013, filling valleys upstream of the dam. In the center, you can see the growth of the dam as new contours are added, presumably to raise the crest of the dam. According to our calculations, between May 2013 and September 2015 the surface area of the impoundment increased by approximately 100 acres (406,000 sq. meters).

Though the comparison is not nearly so stark, here is another image collected by Planet Labs on October 2, side-by-side with the same September 25 image seen above. The images were collected at different times of day, so features that were in the shadows on one image will be visible in the other:


Mining and Civil Engineers – See anything notable about developments at the Fundão Dam? Leave a comment below.