SkyTruth and COVID-19: A message from the President

SkyTruth continuing to protect the environment from remote offices. 

Dear friends, partners and supporters: the staff, board and I wish all of you as much kindness, strength, good health, and good cheer as these difficult times allow. In case you were wondering, I can assure you that SkyTruth is well equipped to adapt to these extraordinary circumstances. We’re in a good financial position. Our staff and contractors are comfortable with, and experienced at, working as a distributed team: we have well-tested tools to facilitate remote work and data sharing, and a rigorous schedule for communications to keep everyone in touch and on track. To help slow the spread of coronavirus during this critical window of opportunity to “flatten the curve,” we closed our Shepherdstown office three weeks ago, and all staff are working from home until further notice.

I’m convinced the need for our work is even greater during this crisis: the White House assault on the environment continues at a breakneck pace. Despite the staff shortages and chaos resulting from the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency, Bureau of Land Management, and other Federal agencies are under pressure to continue rolling back regulations that were put in place to protect human health and the environment. And the EPA just announced a “sweeping relaxation” of pollution reporting requirements for power plants, oil refineries, and other industrial sites, leaving the public in the dark about the ongoing leaks, spills and other toxic incidents happening at facilities that are often located right next door.

This tunnel we’re in may be long, but there will be an end to it. That’s why SkyTruth will continue to shine a light on the way our lands and waters are being managed, to support effective public participation in government decision making, and to inspire better protection of the environment that we need — now and in the future — to heal and sustain us.

As always, feel free to contact me if you’d like to give me some feedback or learn more about how we’re weathering this storm. I would love to hear from you.  – John

South Pesisir Regency, Indonesia ©2020 Map data: Google Earth View  imagery CNES / Airbus, Maxar Technologies.

What’s a Mathematician Doing at SkyTruth?

Alice Foster discovered her love for geology at Brown University, and meandered onto SkyTruth’s path.

My name is Alice Foster, and I started as an intern at SkyTruth this past January. But my journey to SkyTruth was a bit unexpected. I am currently studying applied mathematics at Brown University. And until recently, I was somewhat unenthusiastic about science, although I was interested in conservation issues.

Then, in search of an introductory environmental studies class at my first academic fair, I ended up talking to a professor at the Department of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences table. She convinced me to try out her class, which she said offered a good foundation for understanding environmental issues. In the opening lecture, I was a bit disappointed to learn that the class was about geology; lacking any understanding of the subject beyond an earthquake project in seventh grade, I associated the word with something vaguely boring and irrelevant. But after a few minutes, I was hooked. I found it beautiful to understand how mountain ranges and canyons and plains come into being, and to try to wrap my head around the massive time scales on which geological processes take place. Learning about crystal deformation at a molecular level was fascinating because it could explain how an entire glacier moves. Everything seemed to fit together. Over the course of the semester we applied physics and chemistry, satellite and seismic imagery, and logic to solve Earth’s riddles. 

One of my favorite topics covered in that class was meandering rivers, a concept I identified with. A meander forms a curve in a river: fast-moving water wears away at the outer bank, while sediment transported by slower-moving water amasses at the inner edge, creating a point bar. This process of erosion and deposition makes the bends bendier and the river wander. 

If you look at outcrops on the side of a road, you might spot evidence of ancient meandering rivers. A fast-moving river can transport and deposit large pebbles in its channel. When the water changes course, the former channel becomes part of the river’s floodplain. At times, the river overwhelms its banks and leaves behind sand and clay to overlay the old layer. Some years later, the channel might shift again and deposit larger grains on top of the fine particles. In the rock record, these deposits can appear as beds of shale interspersed with conglomerates.

Alice camping with friends. Photo by Ailita Eddy.

The summer after I took this geology class, I encountered a magnificent meandering river near a farm I worked at in Iowa. Tall trees with lush foliage grew on one bank; a cow pasture bordered the other. I liked to walk down the road to a bridge overlooking the river. I imagined it all playing out: water flowing around the outer edge and loosening soil from the steep bank, bits of rock bouncing chaotically along the riverbed, and the inner bank growing thick with silt. In millions of years, the vestiges of the river might lie deep beneath the ground, compacted, cemented, and turned to stone. 

Since then, my interest in geology and climate science, combined with my love for mathematics, has informed my meandering career exploration. This semester, I decided to take a break from school and homework and experience new things. I wanted to intern at SkyTruth because SkyTruth’s work combines many of my greatest passions, and because I felt excited about contributing to work that could benefit others. It is amazing to see up close how SkyTruth uses geospatial technology to solve tangible problems. I get to think about math and geology while engaging with immediate conservation issues around the world. 

Right now I am working on monitoring bilge dumping in oceans around the Arabian Peninsula, Africa, and Brazil. I am also working with SkyTruth staff to digitize natural gas well pads for a machine learning model. This model will allow SkyTruth to automatically identify well pads in Alaska and Patagonia.

As an intern I have had the chance to learn how to create maps in QGIS and how to program in Google Earth Engine. QGIS is a geographic information system application that can be used to analyze and visualize geospatial data such as satellite imagery or a ship’s track across the ocean. I have also gotten to reflect on what I might want my career to look like. I love getting to be part of a welcoming, supportive, super knowledgeable, all-around wonderful group of people pursuing new projects and ideas. Though I am unsure of my path, this is the kind of environment I will look for as I embark on my career.

Alice made this on a letterpress printer using a linoleum carving block and metal type. “Wild Geese” is one of her favorite poems. She wanted to create an image having to do with the refuge one can find in the natural world. Credit: Alice Foster

Bilge Dumping at Sea: Why should I care?

Scientific research on the impact of oil pollution on marine life and coastal communities, combined with evidence of frequent bilge dumping, suggests oily bilge could be harming marine ecosystems and coastal economies.

This is the second entry in a multi-part series revealing the significance of bilge dumping globally.

Last year SkyTruth reported 163 accounts of likely bilge dumping across the world, from Brazil, to the Mediterranean, to Southeast Asia and elsewhere. As we described in our recent post,  bilge dumping is the illegal release of untreated oily wastewater from a vessel’s lower hull. This wastewater, or bilge, appears as an oil slick in the ocean, which eventually disperses and can migrate to vulnerable coastlines.  

Because it happens out at sea, bilge dumping traditionally has been an enigmatic source of pollution and challenging to consistently monitor. Although SkyTruth is working to change that, so far the negative effects of bilge dumping are sparsely documented. To explore the potential impacts of frequent bilge dumping worldwide, we can start by considering the contaminants oily bilge waste contains. Oily bilge waste water is the byproduct of operating ocean-going vessels and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, contains contaminants such as lubricants, grease, and cleaning fluids, as well as harmful or toxic metals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and selenium, some of which are known or probable carcinogens. Other harmful substances in bilge can include organic chemicals such as benzene, chloroform, hexachlorocyclohexane isomers, and naphthalene

The size of tankers and container vessels that dump their waste can help us understand the amount of pollution they are emitting. Commercial marine vessels are some of the largest machines in the world, with some measuring 131 meters (143 yards) in length; comparable to the size of a small skyscraper. The engines in these vessels can be as large as three buses and have up to 333 times more horsepower than the engine of a midsize car. Their large size makes cargo vessels very efficient for transporting goods; but if the waste from these massive engines routinely ends up in the oceans, their environmental impact can be substantial. Even two decades ago, researchers reported that ocean-going vessels generated millions of tons of waste annually. A 2003 report by the nonprofit conservation group Oceana estimated that in European waters alone “illegal dumping and routine operations of vessels account for between 666,000 and over 2.5 million tons of hydrocarbons of marine pollution per year.” That amount is up to 70 times greater than the Exxon Valdez oil spill and is likely even greater today. Over a 20 year span from 1992 to 2012, the amount of ocean-going traffic has grown by 300%, increasing the likelihood of even more vessel pollution. 

A large research collaboration published by The National Academies Press (2003) found that between 1990 and 1999 vessels (in contrast to pipelines or facilities) in US waters produced the largest oil spills. Additionally, this research reports that 12 percent of the total petroleum hydrocarbons found worldwide in the oceans were from “accidental spills and operational discharges of cargo oil occurring during transportation of petroleum products.” This accounted for 160,000 tonnes of oil annually; the equivalent of four Exxon Valdez oil spills every year. 

Exxon Valdez oil spill [photo courtesy ARLIS, Alaska Resources Library & information Services]

Exxon Valdez oil spill [photo courtesy ARLIS, Alaska Resources Library & information Services]

The negative effects of bilge dumping can be seen in the United Arab Emirates. In 2017, one of the emirates, Fujairah experienced three oil spills in just two months. Locals reported that this contributed to a significant decrease in local hotel bookings and left dead fish and black oil on the shores. Last year, nine Brazilian states and 132 beaches were impacted by multiple mysterious incidents of oil washing up onshore. The cause of these incidents still has not been determined, but one possibility is a series of bilge dumping incidents. The impact occurred in multiple biodiverse tourism areas, specifically in Brazil’s oldest national park

SkyTruth also continues to find oil offshore Nigeria, in the Gulf of Guinea. And while this oil is mostly a consequence of energy infrastructure, we suspect this oil stems from bilge dumping as well. Nigeria’s Niger Delta, which drains into the Gulf of Guinea, experiences periodic water contamination from heavy metals due to extensive energy development, so much so that the delta has been called the “oil rivers.” Over a 38 year timespan, 12,000 oil spills were reported in the delta. Communities often use this water untreated for cooking or drinking as well as for local agriculture and fish farming. 

Heavy oil has been sullying the beaches of northeastern Brazil since early September. The cause remains elusive. [Photo courtesy tvBrasil via Creative Commons license]

Recently, an environmental activist and resort director contacted SkyTruth after repeatedly discovering remnants of oil and tar washing up on beaches near Singapore and the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. This local activist continues to report regular incidents that they believe may be the result of bilge dumping. 

When oil washes up onshore, our Southeast Asian source states that it sometimes can be small and relatively easy to clean up, but at times, when it’s a bad spill, “it can be barrels full of it, or it can be thick tar balls, sometimes five to six inches across — so large that they look like they came out of a pipe,” he told us. The oil releases a “distinct petroleum smell” and “if it gets in amongst the rocks it can take months to clean out,” he told us. “If it washes up on a beach at high tide, it melts in the sun and is terribly messy to clean up.” Most incidents happen during the northeast monsoon season when the region gets stronger winds; however, outside of this season oil still lingers. “I can almost always walk down a beach and find some,” he told us. 

Video of oil globs from suspected bilge dumping washing up on a beach in Southeast Asia in February 2020. Video by anonymous.

Studies from oil spills suggest that oil at sea disperses over a period of days to weeks, and some of this oil can wash up on coastlines, potentially harming ecosystems and soiling beaches. Vessel bilge dumping incidents typically receive less attention than large oil spills: they are much smaller-scale events, but occur more frequently and potentially can have a significant cumulative effect. The substantial scientific literature analyzing the effects of large-scale historical oil spills — most notably BP’s Deepwater Horizon and the Exxon Valdez — could help shed light on the potential impacts of bilge dumping.

The impact of oil on a community’s natural environment can be very prominent, and it varies. When a slick disintegrates, its components can weather into dense tar balls which pile up on shores, as well form a messy sludge coined chocolate mousse. Well-protected clean-up teams are needed to carefully remove oil from coastal areas.

One unsettling outcome from oil in the water is its effects on marine life — from acute to progressive diseases. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, dolphin deaths from lung and adrenal lesions increased, and reproduction decreased, which scientists believe could be linked to exposure to oil. In addition, a multi-state natural resource damage assessment estimates that as many as 102,000 birds were killed or harmed during the Deepwater Horizon spill. Mangroves and coral reefs in Brazil, Panama and Singapore have been harmed by oil in the water. Human health can also be affected. One survey from an oil spill in Pakistan in 2003 found those who lived near the coastline experienced eye, skin, and respiratory health symptoms, asfumes and a mist of oil in the air.” Far worse, years after an oil spill offshore Spain, some cleanup workers of the spill showed signs of genetic mutations in their blood, potential catalysts for more serious disease. 

Lastly, oil spills have triggered social and psychological distress. After the Deepwater Horizon disaster, some impacted individuals were found to have high oil related stress and PTSD related symptoms. This discomfort led to lengthy lawsuits and ongoing political protests by citizens who felt that the energy company responsible, BP, was not taking full responsibility. 

Bilge dumping is unlikely to trigger such large-scale reactions. However, based on what SkyTruth has documented over the past year, we believe that bilge dumping could be the stealthy, less recognized cousin to large oil spills, that cumulatively leads to large amounts of oil in ocean waters and coastlines. Perpetrators often evade prosecution and accountability, leaving communities to bear the impacts and costs. 

Although scientific research on bilge dumping per se is limited, harmful impacts of oil pollution on marine life, human health, and coastal communities are well documented. Given the dozens of likely bilge dumping incidents SkyTruth has revealed over the past year, and the concerns expressed to us by coastal residents, we believe bilge dumping could be a sleeper source of oil pollution in the sea. It’s time to do something about it.