Ten years ago SkyTruth Revealed the Truth about the BP Oil Spill

SkyTruth video highlights our work fighting oil pollution, then and now.

Ten years ago last week, BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 men and setting off the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. SkyTruth was there; not in person but remotely; using satellite imagery to track the spill from space. Working with oceanographer Ian MacDonald, we estimated that the amount of oil gushing from the broken wellhead was more than an order of magnitude larger than the estimates provided by BP and the U.S. Coast Guard. By making our independent analyses available to the public, we generated national and international media attention, and created pressure on the federal government to create its own scientific task force to determine the true size of the spill. Their conclusion, months later, was even larger than our estimates, and set the stage for the billions of dollars that BP eventually paid to help restore Gulf ecosystems and economies.

Watch our four-minute video to learn more about the disaster, and what SkyTruth is doing now to stop oil pollution at sea.

Thanks to Thad Reid for helping us with this production.

Bilge Dumping in Southeast Asia Continues in 2020

Southeast Asia appears to be a hotspot for bilge dumping.

SkyTruth continues to find frequent instances of apparent bilge dumping in the waters of Southeast Asia. Bilge dumping occurs when cargo vessels and tankers illegally discharge oily wastewater directly into the ocean. Vessel operators might do this to avoid the costs of treating their polluted wastewater, as required under international law (read more about that here).

On March 23, Sentinel-1 imagery captured three likely bilge slicks off the coast of Madura Island in Indonesia. The yellow circles in the image below highlight the length and variety of the slicks. In this image, two of the three bilge slicks reach a length of almost 90 kilometers (almost 56 miles). Multiple long bilge slicks in such close proximity to each other show an alarming trend for this region.

 

Image 1. Three suspected bilge slicks of varying length surround Madura Island in Indonesia.

On March 15, Sentinel-1 imagery captured another potential bilge slick about 30 kilometers long off the coast of Malaysia in the Java Sea. Using Automatic Identification System (AIS) broadcasts from the vessel, SkyTruth identified the likely source of this slick as the Indonesian vessel known as the ARIN 8. 

 

Image 2. A vessel spotted off the coast of Malaysia leaving a black trail in its path: an oily slick indicating a possible instance of bilge dumping.

SkyTruth frequently documented bilge slicks in Southeast Asian waters throughout 2019 suggesting that this region is a hotspot for dumping, and in 2020 we’ve spotted oily slicks indicating more than 25 potential bilge dumping incidents in the  region. These slicks ranged from 20 to 100 kilometers (12 to 62 miles) in length. SkyTruth will continue to monitor this high traffic area to help bring attention to the issues in this region. 

Bilge Dumping at Sea: How can this be happening?

Despite large penalties for breaking the law, bilge dumping continues to occur. Infrequent prosecution, combined with incentives to dump oily waste instead of treating it, means some polluters take their chances.

This is the third entry in a multi-part series revealing the significance of bilge dumping globally. You can read parts one and two on SkyTruth’s blog. 

Today, ninety percent of international trade relies on global shipping. From commercial to passenger vessels the world’s global fleet exceeds 95,402 ships plus around 2.8 million fishing vessels. With all this ocean traffic occurring every day, SkyTruth has been monitoring the oceans for bilge dumping; the illegal discharge of oily wastewater at sea. In this post, we explore regulations governing bilge dumping and consider why this practice is so widespread, despite these regulations.

International regulations exist to ensure shipping practices are environmentally sound. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is considered the global regulator of shipping; its regulations apply to 99% of the world’s merchant tonnage. Its convention —  the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (known more commonly as MARPOL) — has six annexes regulating several types of vessel pollution; everything from dangerous cargo, garbage, and noxious emissions, with one specific annex dedicated entirely to the treatment of oily waste mixtures, including oily bilge, and standards for operational or accidental discharges. Currently, vessels are allowed to return dirty water to the ocean, but are limited to discharge oil concentrations of no more than 15 parts per million (ppm), a limit that requires the use of machines called oil-water separators to reach. This is a strict requirement in the annex. Large vessels over 10,000 gross tonnage are required to install alarms and automatic stopping devices if the wastewater exceeds 15 ppm.  When vessels discharge untreated or insufficiently treated bilge, they circumvent this crucial step in the disposal process. 

With options to properly treat oily wastewater, and costly deterrents for breaking the law, it can seem confounding that vessels continue to deliberately pollute the ocean. Penalties for breaking the law include criminal felonies such as obstruction of justice, fines up to $40 million, probation of the shipping company and its operating vessels, as well as prison sentences for those directly responsible. Fines can support environmental compliance programs as well as community service and remediation funds. Under the U.S. Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS) up to 50% of the value of these fines provide compensation for whistleblowers involved in the prosecution. When whistleblowers report wrongdoings they are risking their employment as well as potential retaliation such as abuse. Appropriate compensation is an important incentive for whistleblowers to continue to take these risks, especially since whistleblowers are responsible for a a large number of successful convictions. However, compensation can be uncertain since it depends on how useful a court deems the information whistleblowers provide. It is questionable whether incentives to whistleblowers are strong enough, especially considering many cases aren’t heard or fail to result in prosecution. In 2016, 23 corporations were convicted in the United States; however, Marine Defenders, an educational program to reduce oil pollution in U.S. coastal waters, predicts that 5,000-7,500 vessels discharge untreated bilge around the world annually.  

Vessel operators are required to maintain an oil logbook that contains all cleaning and disposal events — whether intentional or accidental, legal or illegal. When accusations of bilge dumping appear in court, they often uncover false logbooks or inaccurate records of discharged pollutants at sea. This can reveal that the vessel is using bypass equipment or tampering with the oil-water separator to avoid appropriate treatment. Logbooks can be verified through vessel inspections, or sometimes with the help of whistleblowers. It is often these false logbooks that lead to large fines. Under the APPS, vessel owners face the largest fines. Additional fines and sentences can also be given to individuals directly responsible for the crime — usually the vessel operators or engineers

 

Image 1. The Marshall Island-flagged Ridgebury Alexandra Z. The Cyprus shipping company was penalized with a $2 million fine. Photo courtesy of Vessel Finder

But some vessels might not see the value in complying with MARPOL requirements if the savings of simply dumping oily wastewater into the ocean outweigh the potential risks. It is costly for vessels to treat their wastewater and requires they either invest upfront in an on-board treatment system or they pay for treatment at a port facility. Both of these options can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year depending on the amount of travel and fuel used. Operators, officers, and engineers have all been found to bypass expensive treatment or avoid operating costs, allowing vessels to gain a competitive advantage. Officers can receive bonuses if environmental compliance budgets are maintained. Some players in the shipping industry have been reported to treat crew members poorly, and crew members can be threatened with job loss or lost wages if they fail to follow orders. 

In some cases, vessels without oil-water separator equipment that need to empty their hull of oily waste might choose to avoid the extra travel needed to reach a port facility with the appropriate equipment, and instead dump the wastewater into the sea on route. However, there is no shortage of port reception facilities. IMO reports 3,253 facilities to treat oily bilge water in over 80 member states in its Global Integrated Shipping Information System, and the majority of these port facilities are conveniently located along common shipping routes. Some of these vessel operators might assume they have a low probability of being caught, and perhaps are unaware of how closely they can be monitored by Global Positioning System (GPS), satellites, and nearby aircraft or other vessels. Operators who fear being caught sometimes illegally alter or turn off their Automatic Identification System (AIS) and “go dark” at sea. AIS is a radio frequency broadcast equipped with GPS that is mandatory on almost all large oceangoing vessels, to help promote safety at sea. Ships can communicate through AIS and avoid collisions in high traffic situations.

Image 2. Major shipping lanes revealed by a year’s worth of AIS broadcasts from non-fishing vessels. Map courtesy of Global Fishing Watch.

Another incentive for illegal bilge discharge: an overwhelming number of illegal ocean dumpers go unpenalized for their crimes in many different countries. Vessels can control the level of enforcement they face by registering to sail under a flag that is different from the country in which the vessel is owned. For example, in 2015 a German-owned motor vessel named City of Tokyo, operating under the flag of Liberia, was caught bilge dumping off the Alaskan coast. Often this means a vessel from a developed state is using the flag of a developing state; Panama, Liberia and Marshall Islands currently flag the world’s largest fleets. More than 70 percent of the world’s merchant vessels are registered under a different flag state. By choosing a flag of convenience, vessel operators, without a genuine link to their country of ownership, can find advantageous loopholes depending on a flag state’s national laws. They can shop for lower registration fees and taxes and can choose a registry that allows them to remain anonymous. They can also recruit a foreign workforce at lower labor costs. Essentially, some developing states prioritize economic development over environmental enforcement

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is the legal framework states use to adopt international laws for the world’s oceans. It differentiates rights in territorial seas near each state’s coastlines, and non-territorial or high seas. Since individual states have jurisdiction to adopt (“in conformity with generally accepted international regulations”) and enforce their own national laws, prosecution for environmental harm such as bilge dumping varies in leniency. UNCLOS specifies that flag states have exclusive jurisdiction over their ships on the high seas. Exclusive jurisdiction means vessels abide by flag state laws and are subject to flag state prosecution. Additionally, flag states issue vessels their compliance certifications by approving the vessel’s equipment and crew. These certifications can be used by vessels when passing through other states’ territorial waters, making it difficult for port or coastal states to pursue noncompliance of other flag state vessels within their territorial waters. It is only in territorial waters and under good reason that a foreign state can make a hot pursuit on vessels neglecting the law. 

 It can seem confounding why enforcement is so infrequent globally given that, under UNCLOS, each flag state should have at least minimal legislation. SkyTruth spoke with John Kostyack, executive director of the National Whistleblower Center to answer this question. Kostyack told us “The concept behind treaties like MARPOL is that domestic legislation then implements them, but most countries have either not passed legislation, or they have legislation that is not enforced consistently.” Kostyack notes that fines are imposed in some countries, including the US, but the level of penalties are nowhere near sufficient, stating “(d)umping oily waste illegally is seen by these companies as a risk worth taking because they don’t see a significant threat of prosecution. Even when penalties are imposed they are not steep enough to change behavior. This is a recipe for continued pollution.” Ultimately, Kostyack feels the primary reason vessels are bilge dumping is because it is cheaper to occasionally pay modest penalties than to pay to treat their own waste. 

SkyTruth will continue to search the world’s oceans for illegal bilge dumping. We are currently working to automate this process to cover more areas in near real-time. We hope that by revealing this otherwise often hidden practice, we can arm whistleblowers and others with useful information to prosecute these crimes more frequently, and create greater incentives for vessel owners and operators to comply with international law.

 

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