Timelapse: Three Decades of Powder River Basin Coal Mining

Earlier this year Google launched the Timelapse project,  a global interactive map that uses three decades of Landsat imagery to show how our world is changing. One stunning example of human impact on the planet is the rapid buildout of Powder River Basin coal mines in the Thunder Basin National Grassland.

In addition to domestic power production, coal exports are an increasingly controversial issue as demand in Asia increases. Exporting coal means even more mining here at home, long coal trains transporting it to ports through busy cities, increased train derailments, and more dirty coal terminals that spill and flood

If you can’t see the embedded map above, please check it out on our website: http://skytruth.org/issues/mining/energy/

Be sure to check out past posts on this issue to see mines like this one compared with more familiar features like San Francisco, and get an idea how big the trains are that carry all this coal to foreign markets. And do some skytruthing of your own at: 

GMC Monitoring Flight – Mobile, Al to Gulfport, MS: Part I – Coal Export and Terminals

On March 24 staff from Gulf Monitoring Consortium members SkyTruth, SouthWings, and Gulf Restoration Network flew over the Alabama and Mississippi coastline investigating pollution and degradation related to energy development. Our flight originated from Mobile, arranged by SouthWings with local volunteer pilot Dr. David Mauritson generously donating his time, talents, and fuel to our monitoring efforts.First, we flew over the Port of Mobile which dominated the landscape immediately after takeoff from the Brookley Aeroplex. The port boasts the McDuffie Coal Terminal, one of the nation’s largest coal import-export terminals. In addition to several smaller facilities nearby, McDuffie can handle a staggering 30 million tons of coal in a year, but in the past year  they processed *just* 13.9 million tons – only 46% of capacity. These numbers are of interest because of the intensifying debate over coal export.  With cheap natural gas flooding the market from fracking plays like the Marcellus Shale, there is growing pressure to sell American coal overseas to foreign markets – particularly Asia and Europe.

McDuffie Coal Terminal on the south end of the Port of Mobile, supplied by coal from from as far away as Wyoming – most of which is transported by rail. Photo: D. Manthos – SkyTruth, via SouthWings

Only  one vessel was loading coal at the time of our flight, the Panama-flagged Grand Diva. This operation was depositing a black plume of coal dust in the water.

Plume of coal dust in the water (NRC Report #1042025off the starboard bow of the Germany-bound Grand Diva. Photo: D. Manthos – SkyTruth,  via SouthWings

As an individual case, this may not result in a significant impact on the environment.  But a brief review of Google Earth’s historical imagery yields two previous events clearly showing coal in the water, and several other less-clear images that appear to show pollution, suggesting this is a common event that may result in significant cumulative impact.

Air pollution is another consideration. Chronic coal-dust blowing off the stockpiles at a coal terminal are the basis of a Clean Water Act lawsuit in Seward, Alaska, and one of the main arguments throughout the Pacific Northwest against expanding coal export terminals to move more Powder River Basin coal from Wyoming to Asian markets.  This is only one step along the way from mine to market – coal trains derail far more often than you might think (in North Dakota, Michigan, and Nebraska, just this past month), loaded barges crash into bridges (just this week)terminals flood when severe storms come through, and ships even crash into the loading docks. Not counting carbon emissions from burning the coal, scientists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens along coal transport routes are worried that these cumulative impacts will harm public health, disrupt their daily lives, and negatively impact the ecological health of waterways along the path from mine to port.

Bulk transport by barge is cheaper and more fuel efficient than even freight rail, but extreme weather events exaggerated by climate change threaten its reliability. Last year’s drought crippled transport on the Mississippi River at the end of 2012, and without significant rain  river operators could face another low water crisis in 2013.

More to come including a leaky settling pond, an oil slick off Gulfport, and severe erosion resulting from ill-conceived oil spill response practices on Dauphin Island. Be sure to check out the photos of the whole flight on Flickr.


Gulf Monitoring Consortium: Mobile, Al - Gulfport, MS

Coal Export Terminal – Norfolk, Virginia

Every couple of weeks or so, the folks at DigitalGlobe/Geoeye publish a newsletter featuring various examples of recent high-resolution satellite imagery from around the world.  This is always an interesting, and often jaw-dropping, little publication to look through.  Among other things the latest edition features stunning imagery of Egyptian temples and offshore oil platforms, the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea, and this massive coal-export terminal near Norfolk,Virginia:

High-resolution satellite image of coal-export terminal in Virginia. Download the WorldView Report from DigitalGlobe to see a much bigger version of this image.

As the market for coal-fired electricity generation here in North America shrinks due to the rise of cheap natural gas-fired power (thanks to fracking for shale-gas), exports of coal from the US to overseas markets in Europe and Asia are sharply increasing.  This booming export market is propping up the continued destruction of Appalachian mountains by mountaintop removal mining. It’s also fueling a rash of coal-train derailments impacting health and safety in communities across the nation, some far removed from the coal-mining areas and the export terminals.

As if we needed more reasons to reduce our crippling dependence on fossil fuels.

Coal Exports: Are You Safe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SkyTruth Joins Petition Regarding Pacific NW Coal Exports

SkyTruth has joined WaterKeeper Alliance members from around the Pacific Rim and other NGO’s in petitioning the Army Corps of Engineers (ACoE) to  widen the scope of their environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal at Cherry Point in Whatcom County, WA. We endorse this petition because it supports our vision of “a world where all people can see and understand the environmental consequences of human activity everywhere on the earth.” 
Smog (grey clouds) over China as seen by NASA’s MODerate resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) in October 2010.  Increased exports through the Pacific Northwest are expected to find a major market in China and Southeast Asia.
From our perspective of the earth through the lenses of satellites, aerial images, and spatial data, we have a unique perspective on the footprint of human activity and the far-reaching impacts of our development. In order for the ACoE to make a accurate judgement on the positive and negative elements of this project, all of the impacts have to be accounted for. This petition calls for a thorough environmental impact statement that:
  • Analyzes impacts to every community impacted by the mining, transport and burning of coal, including impacts in Montana, Idaho, Washington, India, China and Bangladesh.
  • Quantifies the air, land and water pollution from coal dust that will blow off rail cars, barges, transfer stations and loading areas contaminating communities, people, wildlife and waterways with heavy metals and particulates.
  • Thoroughly assesses the impacts of habitat alteration and pollutant impacts to natural resources, parks and wildlife including the rare, threatened and endangered species in the Columbia River Basin, the Puget Sound Basin and in the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve where the terminal might be built, including impacts to threatened Puget Sound Chinook Salmon, steelhead trout and bull trout as well as endangered Southern Resident Orca Whales.
  • Calculates and reports the amount of mercury, fine particulates and other air pollutants that will blow back across the Pacific Ocean and pollute Pacific Northwest after the coal has been burned in power plants in India and China.
  • Analyzes the impacts to cultural and archaeological resources in tribal communities that are located in the path of the coal trains, barges and ships that will supply the Gateway Pacific Terminal.
  • Assesses the likely drop in property values due to air emissions, coal dust and traffic disruption along railroad path.
  • Fully assesses the increased risk of a marine accident that could result in a major oil spill in the already-crowded waters of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, due to 900 or more container ship transits per year. This should include a major spill’s likely impact on the economy and on threatened and endangered species, including the endangered Southern Resident orca whale.
  • Quantifies the carbon emissions generated by the burning and transport of the coal, as well as its impact on global climate change and ocean acidification.
  • Includes a no-action alternative.
The comment period will remain open through January 21, 2013: to sign, visit: