Serious Brainpower Tackled SkyTruth Challenge at AWS re:Invent Hackathon for Good

SkyTruth’s goal to stop oil pollution at sea from bilge dumping is off to a strong start.

The call came two weeks in advance: SkyTruth was chosen to be one of four nonprofits featured at the AWS re:Invent Hackathon for Good held December 2, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. What followed was a frenzy of activity in the SkyTruth offices. Assembling databases for the hackathon teams to work from. Generating FAQs and documentation. Developing materials to share the SkyTruth story. Crafting just the right pitch to lure the best and brightest from a roomful of 150 computer scientists and engineers to work on our challenge — namely, automating the detection of bilge dumping at sea by vessels violating international law and polluting the ocean. 

Finally, the big day arrived. Early in the morning, SkyTruthers Ry Covington, Jona Raphael, and John Amos staffed a table at Vegas’ MGM Grand, offering SkyTruth swag to entice hackers to our cause. 

 

But cool T-shirts and stickers are one thing, and a compelling challenge is another. Here’s SkyTruth President John Amos’ pitch to the crowd: Help us stop oil pollution at sea.

 

 

The competition was tough. Three other worthy nonprofits were vying for the same brilliant brainpower that we were. After a convincing presentation and a little Q & A, SkyTruth attracted seven separate teams with a total of 35 computer scientists and engineers to work on different components of our goal: an automated system that detects bilge dumping every day around the world, identifies the perpetrators, and alerts law enforcement and the public in near real-time.

 

 

Time to roll up the sleeves and work.

 

 

And work.

 

 

And work.  Eight straight hours on laptops, at flip charts, and in discussion. Lots of Red Bull to stay alert and free massages to stay limber after hours hunched over a keyboard. 

 

 

Finally, at 6 p.m. it was time to present the results to the judges.

 

 

And here’s just a sample of what our teams came up with.

 

 

But that’s not the end; it’s just the beginning. We’re still evaluating all of the new material our teams generated and we’re excited about the possibilities. And the week-long AWS re:Invent conference followed the Hackathon, with lots of opportunities to make valuable contacts.

 

 

Have a little fun.

 

 

And, perhaps most importantly, win an AWS Imagine Grant to support continued work to stop illegal bilge dumping at sea. Here’s Vice President of AWS-Worldwide Public Sector, Teresa Carlson, announcing the seven Imagine Grant winners – including SkyTruth.

 

 

With the valuable contacts we made at the AWS re:Invent Hackathon and conference, the volunteers who promised to continue helping us with this project, and support from the AWS Imagine Grant and others, SkyTruth will find a way to stop illegal oil pollution at sea. 

 

Photos by John Amos and Jona Raphael.

Systematic GPS Manipulation Occuring at Chinese Oil Terminals and Government Installations

Analysis reveals precise location and timing of GPS interference but purpose remains unclear.

Last month, an article in MIT Technology Review described strange GPS anomalies  in Shanghai. I began investigating, and have now found evidence of a novel form of GPS manipulation occuring at at least 20 sites on the Chinese coast during the past year. The majority of these sites are oil terminals, but government installations in Shanghai and Qingdao also show the same striking pattern of interference in GPS positioning. We don’t know the reason for this interference. It may simply be a general security or anti-surveillance system but it is also possible that it is intended to avoid scrutiny of imports of Iranian crude which have recently come under U.S. sanctions. Whatever the intention, we are able to demonstrate here, through analysis of vessel tracking data, that this GPS interference can be pinpointed very precisely in both time and location.

According to the MIT Technology Review article, this phenomenon was first documented by the U.S. flagged container ship Manukai when the vessel entered the port of Shanghai in July. The captain noticed that the vessel’s AIS (Automatic Identification System) appeared to malfunction — vessels on the navigation screen appeared and disappeared without explanation and appeared to move when they were in fact stationary. AIS, originally designed for collision avoidance, transmits vessels’ GPS locations, courses, and speed every few seconds via VHF (very high frequency) radio. These signals are not only picked up by nearby vessels and terrestrial antennas, but some private companies have also launched satellites able to receive these signals. For this analysis we were able to use data made available by two of these companies, Spire and Orbcomm, through our research partnership with Global Fishing Watch.

An investigation by non-profit C4ADS (Center for Advanced Defence Studies) showed that AIS vessel locations from hundreds of ships navigating Shanghai’s Huangpu river were coming up at false locations. Strangely, vessels on the river would have their GPS location jump to a ring of positions appearing on land. And this was not just affecting ships; looking at the cycling and running app STRAVA’s tracking map of cyclists, C4ADS also confirmed that this strange pattern of interference was affecting all GPS receivers.

To further investigate the GPS manipulation documented in Shanghai, I examined AIS position broadcasts from ships in the area. A distinct pattern emerged. Upon approaching the area of interference, a vessel’s broadcast position jumps from the vessel’s true location to a point on land where false AIS broadcasts occur in a ring approximately 200 meters in diameter. Many of the positions within the ring had speeds of precisely 31 knots or 21 knots (much faster than vessels would be moving near dock) and showed a course varying depending on the position within the ring. The GPS anomaly appears to affect vessels once they are a few kilometers out from the center of the ring. Once affected, vessels begin broadcasting seemingly random positions within the ring or from other high speed positions scattered around it.

Image 1. The Chinese cargo ship Huai Hia Ji 1 Hao (yellow) transits southeast on the Huangpu river. Upon nearing the center of GPS interference area the track jumps to the ring on land and to other random positions nearby. Positions from other affected vessels are shown in red. AIS data courtesy Global Fishing Watch / Orbcomm / Spire.

Image 2. GPS interference can be pinpointed based on this ring of false AIS positions. Approximately 200 meters in diameter, many of the positions in the ring had reported speeds near 31 knots (much faster than a normal vessel speed) and a course going counterclockwise around the circle. AIS data courtesy Global Fishing Watch / Orbcomm / Spire.

Because the ring of false AIS broadcasts follows this very specific pattern, I was able to query AIS tracking data to check if there are other locations where these rings are also occurring. The results are striking. This GPS manipulation is occuring not only in Shanghai but has occurred in at least 20 locations in six Chinese cities within the past year. The focus of these apparent GPS manipulation devices is clearly oil terminals (where 16 of the 20 detected locations were observed). But three prominent office buildings in Shanghai and Qingdao are also affected: the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China in Shanghai, the Qingdao tax administration office, and the Qingdao headquarters of the Qingjian industrial group.

Image 3. A ring of false AIS positions marks an apparent GPS interference device deployed in an office building identified as the Qingdao tax administration office. AIS data courtesy Global Fishing Watch / Orbcomm / Spire.

Image 4. Locations of detected GPS manipulation occuring in six Chinese cities in 2019. Interference following this pattern was not found beyond the Chinese coast.

It seems likely that the centers of these rings of false AIS positions actually mark the physical location of some sort of GPS disrupting device. A device having precisely this effect on GPS receivers, including shipborne AIS systems, has not been previously documented, though there have been other cases of GPS blocking and manipulation. Earlier this year C4ADS published a report with details on GPS manipulation clearly being carried out by the Russian government. These Russian systems appeared to have the effect of making all receiving devices within range show some particular location, such as a nearby airport, rather than the true location of the device. This was seen in one striking example of vessels approaching Putin’s alleged palace on the Black Sea coast.

This Chinese system is clearly being deployed both at central government offices and at the much more remote locations of oil terminals. In the case of the government office buildings it seems likely that these GPS disrupting devices were activated as a security measure. Some are only active for a few days, perhaps to coincide with the visit of an important official. However,  the AIS manipulation occuring at oil terminals particularly interests us at SkyTruth: One possible motive for deploying GPS manipulation devices at oil terminals could be recent U.S. sanctions on Chinese companies importing Iranian crude. And the intentional disruption of a navigation safety system, in close proximity to crude oil storage, is a serious concern.

Almost half of the specific locations where these presumed GPS disrupting devices have been deployed are at oil terminals near Dalian in northeast China. In an August analysis, The New York Times matched Planet satellite imagery from June and July with AIS tracking data to show Iranian tankers delivering oil to China in violation of U.S. sanctions. The Financial Times also documented Chinese flagged tankers importing Iranian crude after ship to ship transfers with Iranian tankers.

I took a closer look at exactly how this GPS disruption is affecting vessel tracking in one oil terminal east of Dalian. Here I identified four locations where GPS disrupting devices appear to have been deployed in 2019. I compared AIS vessel position data from March 1, 2019  and September 5, 2019. The differences were dramatic.

These two days showed similar numbers of AIS positions in the area. But on September 5 approximately two-thirds of the vessel positions at dock disappeared and appeared to be replaced by positions orbiting the GPS disrupting devices or scattered randomly in the region. At the same time, it does appear that some normal AIS broadcasts are coming through and that the GPS disruption does not entirely mask all vessel movements in the area.

Image 5. On March 1, 2019 AIS vessel position data around an oil terminal east of Dalian China shows accurate vessel positions and speeds. On that date, none of the four locations of GPS interference were active. Consequently no vessel positions appear on land and stationary vessels are accurately shown with near 0 speeds (green). AIS data courtesy Global Fishing Watch / Orbcomm / Spire.

Image 6. On September 5, 2019 two GPS interference locations were active and this had a dramatic effect on scrambling vessel positions in the area. Many positions now appear orbiting the presumed GPS interference devices and others appear scattered on land. On the water many positions are appearing with very high speeds (over 25 knots, red) and it’s not possible to distinguish true and false locations. However some slow speed positions (green) are appearing at dock where they would be expected, so some AIS broadcasts appear to be unaffected. AIS data courtesy Global Fishing Watch / Orbcomm / Spire.

Image 7. The distribution of AIS speeds in the area is significantly altered by the activation of the GPS interference devices. Above AIS speed distributions are compared between March 1 (left, no GPS interference) and September 5 (right, active GPS interference). On Sept 5 the total number of slow speed positions from docked vessels is greatly reduced and spikes now appear at 21 and 31 knots from positions orbiting the presumed GPS interference devices.

I also examined one individual vessel track to see how it was affected by GPS interference. This is the Chinese flagged tanker Jin Nui Zou which entered the Dalian oil terminal on September 5. Initially a normal track is seen as the vessel approaches the terminal from the southeast. With closer proximity to the presumed interference device, scrambled positions — often with very high speeds — start to appear. Eventually almost all of the vessel’s AIS positions appear in the ring orbiting the interference device.

Image 8. The tanker Jin Niu Zuo approaches an oil terminal east of Dalian on September 5. Initially, positions with normal transit speeds appear (yellow). With closer proximity, scattered high speed positions begin to emerge (red) and eventually most positions appear in the ring surrounding the presumed AIS interference device. AIS data courtesy Global Fishing Watch / Orbcomm / Spire.

The timing of GPS interference at different sites on the Chinese coast can be inferred based on the appearance of AIS positions on land with 21 and 31 knot speeds. Of the 20 locations identified, interference appears earliest at office buildings in Qingdao but only over a couple days (April 17 – 18, 2019). The first GPS interference at oil terminals appears in June and has continued until recently but timing varies by location. Activation of interference at different terminals is intermittent and may be in response to specific events. For instance at an oil terminal near Quanzhou GPS interference appears to have been activated only between September 25th and 27th, 2019.

At the Dalian oil terminals GPS interference appears to have begun in late June 2019. It is possible that this was a reaction to increased scrutiny of crude imports after the U.S. ended exemptions for purchase of Iranian oil on May 2nd. In fact, Dalian is the headquarters of two subsidiaries of Cosco shipping which were sanctioned on September 25 for importing Iranian crude. Based on what can be seen with vessel activity in Dalian, it is clear that GPS interference is not able to entirely mask vessels approaching the terminal. However, it likely would make it impossible to reliably link a vessel’s AIS track with satellite imagery of a vessel discharging crude at dock. While it is not at all clear that GPS interference was intended to obscure shipping activity, we do see that it had a significant impact on AIS tracking and that the interference was specifically concentrated at oil terminals.

In the November article first documenting the strange GPS anomaly in Shanghai, the question was posed whether this was the work of the Chinese state or some other actor like a mafia engaged in smuggling river sand. Based on the very specific characteristics of the GPS manipulation observed and its deployment at high level installations, it seems very likely that the Chinese state is responsible. It remains to be seen whether this is simply a security measure or if GPS manipulation is also being deployed specifically to prevent monitoring of oil imports.

Christian Thomas Works to Protect his Home State of West Virginia

Christian had a choice: The Peace Corps or SkyTruth.  He chose SkyTruth.

“It was no contest,” Christian Thomas told me when I asked him about choosing between the Peace Corps and SkyTruth. Born and raised near Shepherdstown, West Virginia, Christian first met SkyTruth President John Amos at the Shepherdstown Farmer’s Market when he was a student at West Virginia University (WVU). Every Sunday morning in the summertime, Christian helped a local farmer tend a stand that sold meat and eggs to community foodies. When John learned that Christian was studying geography and environmental geoscience, he encouraged Christian to send his resume to SkyTruth.

But it took Christian a while to get around to that. First, he graduated from WVU in the spring of 2014. Then he worked as a cook at Camp Arcadia on the shores of Lake Michigan; a favorite family summer destination when he was a kid. After returning to West Virginia in the winter of 2015, he began volunteering at SkyTruth and soon became a part-time employee.

Then the offer from the Peace Corps arrived, giving him the opportunity to work in Ethiopia for two years as an Environmental Extension and Forestry Volunteer. Offer in hand, Christian asked John if SkyTruth would be interested in hiring him full time. Sure enough, SkyTruth made him a counteroffer. “[SkyTruth] was a direct application of everything I had studied,” Christian told me. And one of his first projects at SkyTruth focused on mining: “things I could see and have impact on,” he said. He jumped at the chance for a full-time position.

“One of my favorite things about SkyTruth is creating data that never existed before,” he said. He pointed to how much he values having his data used by researchers, universities, and other partners to generate scientifically credible results that can influence policy, thereby having real impact on the ground.

Christian leads SkyTruth’s work on mountaintop mining; a common practice in Appalachia in which mining companies blow up entire mountaintops to get at the coal hidden inside, then dump the soil, rock, and other material into valleys and streams below. This practice destroys native ecosystems and can poison the water supply. “West Virginia is beautiful. By not destroying the landscape there are more benefits for the state,” Christian believes.

SkyTruth’s Central Appalachia Surface Mining dataset shows where mining has occurred across 74 counties in the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia since 1985. University researchers have used SkyTruth’s data to examine health impacts on nearby communities and conservation groups such as Appalachian Voices have used this data to mobilize activists. Most recently, scientists at West Virginia University published a study in the peer reviewed International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that relied on this dataset to document an association between mining and dementia-related deaths.

“There aren’t a lot of [job] opportunities for West Virginians and what there is often hurts them,” according to Christian. As coal production declines, Christian believes there are better ways for West Virginians to make a living that don’t harm people’s health. “[The beauty] is still there, but we don’t want to lose more,” he said. Some mines are massive, he pointed out — hundreds of acres. “You can see them march across the landscape in the course of a decade.” Christian has seen this firsthand by analyzing countless satellite images. One of the first steps in stopping the process, he believes, is showing how destructive these mines are.

Christian mountain biking in Oregon. Photo by Joe Milbrath.

His next step is looking at reclaimed mine sites. “You can never put the mountains back,” he said. Once mined, the Mountain State’s mountains are gone forever. But he hopes that some previously mined sites can support a native Appalachian forest again if they are reclaimed effectively. “We’re going to quantify how well the land can recover, or has recovered,” he said. This is critical information for taxpayers: Under federal law, mining companies are required to reclaim sites after they are done mining, plus set aside money in bonds to cover reclamation costs. If the mining company convinces state inspectors that recovery is sufficient, they get their bond money back. But if bonds are released for poorly reclaimed sites, communities and taxpayers can be left with denuded landscapes and large restoration bills. Christian wants to know whether real restoration is actually occurring.

His other project work at SkyTruth includes mapping offshore infrastructure in the oceans to help SkyTruth monitor ocean pollution and its partner Global Fishing Watch track fishing vessels. In November 2019, the journal Remote Sensing of Environment published his ocean infrastructure work with coauthors Brian Wong and Patrick Halprin from Duke University’s Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab.

When not saving his beloved West Virginia (or the world’s oceans), Christian spends time outdoors with his partner Amy Moore, whom he’s known since childhood. Amy is lead instructor at the Potomac Valley Audubon Society’s Cool Spring Preserve, and is what Christian calls “an extremely adventurous person,” big into rock climbing, cross country skiing, and white water kayaking. Christian prefers mountain biking, board games, and fly fishing – a family tradition handed down from his mother. But they both enjoy hiking at the nature preserve and, with their shared interest in conservation, make a difference every day in West Virginia.

Christian and Amy at Temperance River State Park, MN . Photo by an anonymous passerby.

Updated 12/5/19.

Multiple Accounts of Oily Pollution Found in the Mediterranean Sea

SkyTruth recently discovered two oil slicks in the Mediterranean Sea — just the most recent examples of an ongoing bilge dumping problem we’ve found in one of the most heavily used marine water bodies in the world.

This year, SkyTruth discovered multiple likely bilge dumps in the Mediterranean Sea; two in just the past month. The Mediterranean Sea covers around 2.5 million square kilometers from Spain to Israel. This area is a very prominent shipping route, but finding so many spills here is surprising considering how closely Europe monitors its waters.

The first slick we identified recently is located in the Ligurian Sea off the northwest coast of Italy; more specifically the Riviera di Ponente. This tourist destination is also called “the coast of the setting sun.” Sentinel-1 satellite imagery captured this 33-kilometer slick on October 20, 2019 at 05:36:16 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) in waters near the Italian Riviera, approximately 60 kilometers southwest of the coast of Genoa, Italy’s sixth largest city.

The Italian Riviera is a popular tourist destination with abundant culture and history, as well as captivating vistas and water recreation activities. Therefore, spotting this oily slick (shown in Figure 1 below) so close to Italy’s coastline was unsettling.

Figure 1: A vessel (a bright dot within the red circle) suspected of bilge dumping (the long, black streak on this radar satellite image) in the Ligurian Sea.

We suspect the Med Pacific, an oil and chemical tanker, is the vessel responsible for the slick. The figure above (Figure 1) shows the vessel track for the Med Pacific as small red dots along the path of the slick. These small red dots are time and location stamped AIS (Automatic Identification System) broadcasts from the Med Pacific, which define the vessel’s path and align closely with the long, dark slick. This close fit between the time and location of the broadcasts, and the position of the vessel and the slick in the satellite image, strongly supports our identification of the vessel causing the slick. 

This tanker is operating under a flag issued by the nation of Malta. Malta is the southern-most and largest island within the Maltese Archipelago, located south of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea.

Figure 2: A photo of the Med Pacific, courtesy of Vessel Finder.

Bilge dumping is unlawful activity in which a ship releases untreated, oily waste water into the ocean, thereby avoiding proper measures of treatment required for safe discharge. Whether intentional — to save money and time — or accidental, bilge dumping is a serious problem. For a more thorough explanation of this illegal act, it’s damaging impact, and the methods SkyTruth uses to identify the vessels responsible, check out our recent post.  

Pictured below is the second likely bilge dumping incident in the Mediterranean Sea. Figure 3 depicts a recent slick captured on Sentinel-1 imagery on November 7, 2019 at 03:59:49 UTC. This suspected bilge dump is located approximately 83 kilometers north of Egypt and spans 60 kilometers. We were unable to identify the vessel responsible for this pollution, however, it is a textbook example of a bilge dump: It has the linear shape of an oily slick discharged from a moving ship, with a very bright speck revealing the vessel at the narrow end of the slick. In order to avoid getting caught, this vessel might have turned off its AIS or intentionally misreported its location. 

Figure 3: An unidentified vessel suspected of bilge dumping in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Egypt.

SkyTruth’s discoveries in the Mediterranean are concerning given that multiple marine programs are in place to protect the Mediterranean Sea from this kind of harm. Currently, the European Union and twenty-one coastal countries and states bordering the Mediterranean are joined together in the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP), created as part of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to establish a partnership and commitment to protect their shared marine environment. Eliminating vessel dumping is defined as one of MAP’s main conservation protocols. The Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Centre for the Mediterranean Sea (REMPEC) was created from a collaboration between the International Maritime Organization and UNEP, and collaborates with MAP to focus specifically on combating ship pollution and bilge dumping. 

Given this Mediterranean partnership, ocean offenders are clearly not following the established protocols of their countries. In fact, the creator of REMPEC is Malta. As the flag state of Med Pacific, Malta is responsible for ensuring that this vessel operates lawfully. Figure 4 shows the partner countries and states in the Mediterranean Action Plan, as well as two red bounding boxes where the two (Figure 1 and Figure 3) suspected bilge dumps occurred. Note: Malta and Monaco, very small states that are part of MAP, are not shown on the map. 

Figure 4: Partners of the Mediterranean Action Plan. Recent likely bilge dumps shown by red boxes.

These findings in the Mediterranean Sea should not be overlooked. Countries in the Mediterranean region have many ports and popular recreational activities located on their coastlines. These high traffic areas can be negatively impacted by misbehaving vessel operators who could be carrying commodities as innocuous as fruit juice or, conversely, very hazardous cargo, such as oil and chemicals, like the tanker Med Pacific

Bilge dumping is a serious offense. It can harm the health of marine plant and animal species, and damage coastal communities. Despite how heavily the shipping and marine transportation industry is relied on for international commerce, regulations on vessels have progressed more slowly and generally have received less attention than regulations on land polluters. But authorities are starting to pay attention. Come January 1, 2020 the International Maritime Organization is requiring vessels to use a less toxic blend of vessel fuel with lower sulfur concentrations. This will reduce the amount of harmful sulfur oxide pollution going into the air. This new international law will hold vessels around the world to a higher, cleaner standard for fuel.

Taking more steps to protect the waters of the world is important. We hope the addition of more environmental regulations, as well as monitoring existing regulations by SkyTruth and other environmental groups, keeps vessel operators on their best behavior and helps make our oceans clean. 

Fracking in Suburbia

What do you do when big oil moves in next door?

Karen Speed’s new house in Windsor, Colorado was supposed to be a peaceful retirement home. Now she plans to move.

Patricia Nelson wanted her son Diego to grow up the way she did – far from the petrochemical plants surrounding their home in Louisiana. So she moved back to Greeley, Colorado to be close to her family. Then she learned about the drilling behind Diego’s school.

Shirley Smithson had enjoyed her quiet community for years, riding her horse through her neighbor’s pastures, watching the wildlife, and teaching at local schools. When she learned that oil wells would be popping up down the street, she was in denial at first, she says. Then she took action. 

These women shared their stories with a group of journalists and others attending the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) 2019 meeting in Fort Collins, Colorado last month. Fort Collins sits right next to Weld County – the most prolific county in Colorado for oil and gas production and among the most prolific in the entire United States. There, hydraulic fracturing (mostly for oil) has boomed, along with a population surge that is gobbling up farmland and converting open space into subdivisions. Often, these two very different types of development occur side-by-side. 

“We moved [into our house] in September, 2014,” Karen Speed told me, “and by the third week of January 2015, boy, I regretted building that house.” That was the week she learned that Great Western Oil and Gas Company, LLC, was proposing to put a well pad between two neighborhoods; and one of those neighborhoods was hers. When residents complained, she said, the company moved the site across a road and into a valley. “Which really isn’t the right answer,” Speed said. “Not in my backyard attitude? No – not in my town.” The well pad now sits next to the Poudre River and a bike path according to Speed. “People I know no longer ride there. They get sick,” she said. “One guy I know gets nosebleeds. He had asthma already and gets asthma attacks after riding.“

Well pads in neighborhoods are not uncommon throughout parts of Colorado’s Front Range. Weld County alone has an estimated 21,800 well pads and produces roughly 88% of Colorado’s oil. SkyTruth’s Flaring Map reveals a high concentration of flaring sites occurring in that region. This industrial activity occurs within residential areas and farmland despite the fact that people living near fracking sites in Colorado complain of bloody noses, migraines, sore throats, difficulty breathing, and other health problems according to Nathalie Eddy, a Field Advocate with the nonprofit environmental group Earthworks.   

Image 1. ImageMethane flaring locations from oil and gas wells in Weld County, CO. Image from SkyTruth’s Annual Flaring Volume Estimates from Earth Observation Group.

 

And then there was the explosion. Two years after Speed moved into her new home, on December 22, 2017, her house shook when a tank exploded at Extraction Energy’s Stromberger well pad four miles away. “When it exploded it really rocked the town,” she said. More than a dozen fire departments responded to the 30-foot high flames. “It went from 8:45 in the evening until the following morning before they could recover and get out of that space,” Speed recalls. According to a High Country News story, workers raced around shutting down operations throughout the site — 19 wells in all plus pipelines, tanks, trucks and other industrial infrastructure  — to prevent oil, gas, and other chemicals from triggering more explosions. Roughly 350 houses sat within one mile of the site and many more were within shaking range. One worker was injured. Dispatcher recordings released by High Country News reveal how dangerous the situation was, and how local fire departments were unprepared for an industrial fire of that magnitude.

That explosion occurred the very night Patricia Nelson returned home from a long day at the District Court in Denver. Nelson has been part of a coalition of public interest groups – including the NAACP, the Sierra Club, Wall of Women, and Weld Air and Water – that sued the Colorado agency responsible for overseeing oil and gas production in the state, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, for approving permits for 24 wells behind her son Diego’s school.  The company that would drill those wells was the same company overseeing the site that exploded – Extraction Energy.

Under Colorado law, oil and gas wells can be as close as 500 feet from a home and 1,000 feet from a school. Extraction’s new wells would be just over that limit and less than 1,000 feet from the school’s playing fields. Although the court hadn’t yet ruled, the company began construction on the site a few months later, in February 2018, and began drilling the wells that May. Ultimately, the District Court and the Appeals Court upheld the permits. Oil wells now tower over the Bella Romero Academy’s playing fields and the surrounding neighborhood of modest homes.

Smithson once taught at Bella Romero and worries about the kids. “When you have noise pollution and light pollution and dust and methane and all the things that come with having oil and gas production going on, kids are impacted physically. Their lungs aren’t developed…their immune systems aren’t totally developed and they are picking all this up,” she said. She has tried to mobilize the community but has been frustrated by the intimidation many parents feel. “This is a community without a voice,” she said. Bella Romero Academy is roughly 87% students of color, most of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. “There are kids from Somalia, from war camps” attending the school, Smithson said. “They have trauma from the top of their head to their toes. They’re not going to speak up.” Both Smithson and Nelson pointed out that immigrants – whether from Somalia or Latin America – are unlikely to speak out because they fear retaliation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Moreover, some parents work for energy companies. They fear losing their jobs if they oppose an oil site near the school.

 In fact, according to Smithson, Nelson, and Speed, Extraction Energy came to Bella Romero because it expected few parents would resist: The company originally proposed these wells adjacent to the wealthier Frontier Academy on the other side of town, where the student body is 77% white. Extraction moved the wells to Bella Romero after an outcry from the school community. This kind of environmental injustice isn’t unusual, and it generated attention from major media outlets, including the New York Times and Mother Jones. You can see how close the wells are to the school in this clip from The Daily Show (and on the SkyTruth image below).

Image 2: Extraction Energy’s facking site near Bella Romero Academy in Greeley, CO. Image by SkyTruth.

 

SkyTruth has resources to help residents, activists, and researchers address potential threats from residential fracking. SkyTruth’s Flaring Map covers the entire world, and users can see flaring hotspots in their region – where energy companies burn off excess methane from drilling operations into the air — and document trends in the volume of methane burned over time. The SkyTruth Alerts system can keep people in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Pennsylvania, West Virginia up-to-date on new oil and gas permits, and new activities in their area of interest.  

 We know that residents and researchers using these kinds of tracking tools can have major impact. Johns Hopkins University researchers used SkyTruth’s FrackTracker program, which identified the location of fracking sites in Pennsylvania, to document health impacts in nearby communities. Those impacts included increases in premature births and asthma attacks. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan cited this information in his decision to ban fracking in his state. Those interested in collaborating with SkyTruth on similar projects should contact us.

Photo 1. Pump jacks at Extraction Energy’s Rubyanna site in Greeley, CO. Photo by Amy Mathews.

 

Although Colorado activists have had limited success so far, this past year did bring some positive changes. The Colorado General Assembly passed SB 181, which directs the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to prioritize public health, safety, welfare, and the environment over oil and gas development. The new law also allows local governments to regulate the siting of oil and gas facilities in their communities and set stricter standards for oil and gas development than the state. Colorado agencies are still developing regulations to implement these new provisions.

 Improvements in technology could help as well.  The same day the SEJ crew met with concerned residents, a spokeswoman with SRC Energy explained the state of the art operations at their Golden Eagle pad in Eaton, Colorado. That technology is designed to mitigate impacts on the surrounding community and includes a 40-foot high sound wall, a water tank on site to pump water from a nearby farm (which reduces truck traffic), and electric pumps (to reduce emissions), among other features. Still, the fear of being surrounded by industrial sites remains for many residents.

Photo 2. SRC Energy’s Golden Eagle Pad, Eaton, CO. Photo by Amy Mathews.

 

In the meantime, Karen Speed is starting to look elsewhere for a new home. Shirley Smithson has decided she’s not going to let an oil company ruin her life. And Patricia Nelson will continue to fight for her family.

 “I think about moving all the time,” Nelson told the group of journalists, her voice cracking.  “But my whole family lives here and I don’t feel I can leave them behind… My sister has five children and drives to Denver for work every day…. I have cousins with kids at this school and family friends. Really, moving isn’t an option for me.”