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

95-Mile-Long Slick in the Gulf of Mexico?

This report on SkyTruth’s handy pollution Alerts system caught my eye yesterday afternoon:


That sounds like bilge-dumping from a passing vessel — an activity that is illegal in US waters (and much of the rest of the world).   Intrepid SkyTruth intern Patrick busted somebody for bilge-dumping off Angola last year using satellite radar imagery and AIS data.  The report was submitted to the Coast Guard-operated National Response Center by image analysts at NOAA.  We’re thrilled that they’ve started reporting their analyses of possible pollution incidents to the NRC, so we can easily incorporate them into our Alerts system.  (We like to think our Gulf Monitoring Consortium activity helped spur NOAA to get their experts into the game in a more public way.)

NOAA’s analysts now think it’s probably not oil; more likely it’s natural surfactant caught in the convergence zone between two water masses.  I agree; this is close to the edge of a loop current now in the northeastern part of the Gulf.  And bilge-dump slicks usually look a lot sharper than this (see a slideshow of our examples from radar imagery).

Here’s detail from a MODIS/Terra satellite image taken at 16:50 UTC on April 14, 2013, showing the apparent slick.

Location map showing detail from MODIS/Terra satellite image taken on April 14, 2013.
Detail from MODIS/Terra satellite image of slick (dark, east-west trending streak) probably caused by natural surfactants accumulating along the convergence zone between ocean currents.

Possible Contamination from Stolthaven Chemical Facility, Braithwaite, LA

The NOAA aerial survey imagery shot in the wake of Hurricane Isaac really is helpful for assessing storm impacts.  Here’s another example, showing the flooded Stolthaven chemical facility along the Mississippi River near Braithwaite, Louisiana.  Someone – we think it must be the company, based on the wording –  filed a pollution incident report with the National Response Center on September 11. This report popped up in our handy SkyTruth Alerts system; it claims nearly 200,000 gallons of chemicals were released, mostly ethylene glycol but including several other nasty things like styrene, xylene and cancer-causing benzene.

Nearby residents have been evacuated, and some have filed suit against the company.

Here’s what the facility looked like when NOAA flew over on August 31:


NOAA aerial survey photography showing flooded Stolthaven chemical facility near Braithwaite, LA on August 31.

Focusing on the northwest end of the site, we can see what appear to be slicks and/or sheen, possibly oil or other chemicals, originating from the round storage tanks and flowing downstream toward homes along English Turn Road:


Slicks and sheen apparently migrating downstream from the Stolthaven facility (lower right) toward flooded homes (upper left).

The flooding derailed tanker cars, damaged storage tanks, and caused other problems on the site.  On a Gulf Monitoring Consortium overflight on September 10, photographer Jeffrey Dubinsky captured a series of low-altitude pics illustrating some of this damage, like this storage tank apparently pushed off its supporting foundation:


Air photo of Stolthaven chemical facility taken during Gulf Monitoring Consortium overflight on September 10, 2012, courtesy of Jeffrey Dubinsky.  See more of Jeffrey’s pics from this flight here.

Jonathan Henderson from Gulf Restoration Network was also on the flight, and caught some great pics too, including this closeup of the dislodged tank:


Another view of the dislodged tank, courtesy of Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network (see more of his pics from the September 10 overflight).

Isaac was certainly a big storm, but clocked in as a relatively mild Category 1 hurricane.  You would think that by now, major industrial facilities planted in the middle of Hurricane Alley would be better able to withstand such predictable storm exposure. But I guess you’d be wrong….

Mismatched reports about Site 23051 chronic oil spill in Gulf

So, who can you believe?

According to the July 12 NRC report about the oil leaking from Site 23051, there was a spill of 7.43 gallons of oil with a visible sheen reported to be 9.3 miles in length and 200 feet wide.  This report was based on observations during an overflight that occurred at 8am that day. Taylor Energy is required to fly over the site every day and report any oil in the water. We assume this is the report filed by Taylor or their contractor. Our SkyTruth Alert calculations suggest that a slick of that size should hold about 241 gallons of oil (we assume a minimum average oil slick thickness of 1 micron).

But there’s more.  A “Good Samaritan” passerby (another helicopter pilot) sighted a slick 15 miles long at 2:10pm, at a location about 15 miles northeast of the Taylor leak site. This report prompted the Coast Guard to request an investigation and oil slick trajectory forecast from NOAA.  We think the passerby sighted the far end of the Taylor slick.

If you look carefully at the MODIS satellite image below, taken at about 1:45pm, you can see a faint, dark streak apparently emanating from Site 23051 that appears to connect to the location of the Good Samaritan’s report. We think this is the slick reported both by Taylor and by the Good Samaritan, and we think It’s unlikely that the slick grew 6 miles in length in the 6 hours that elapsed between the Taylor report and the Good Samaritan’s report (and corresponding MODIS satellite image).

Yet another reason we’ve become increasingly skeptical about the accuracy of the reports submitted by Taylor, and critical of our nation’s reliance on polluter-submitted reports overall.

MODIS Aqua True Color image from 7/12


MODIS Aqua True Color image from 7/12 with slick size shown


Cuba Offshore Drilling Rig Spotted on Radar – Small Slick Reported

We’ve found it.

The big semisubmersible drill rig, built in China and now drilling a deepwater oil well for the Spanish company Repsol in the Florida Straits off Cuba (hey, it is a global industry), has finally made an appearance on a radar satellite image.

This Envisat ASAR image, shot at 11:43 pm local time on March 30, shows a trio of very bright spots about 17 miles north-northwest of Havana.  We think the largest of these spots, with an interesting cross-shaped “ringing” pattern often seen on radar images of big, boxy metal objects, is the Scarabeo-9 rig.  The other two spots may be crew vessels or workboats:

Detail from Envisat AASAR satellite radar image of Florida Straits, taken on March 30. 2012. We infer the large bright spot is the Scarabeo-9 semisubmersible drill rig.  Image courtesy European Space Agency.

The location marked in orange is a report we just got through the SkyTruth Alerts that a small possible oil slick was sighted nearby during a US Coast Guard overflight yesterday morning. We don’t think this is anything alarming; it’s probably just some of the typical oily crud you’ll get from an active drilling operation at sea, that we observe on a regular basis in the Gulf of Mexico with our Gulf Monitoring Consortium partners.

For those who want to know, here is our analysis of the location of the Scarabeo-9 drill rig based on this radar image.  If anyone can confirm this is indeed the location of the rig, please let us know:

 23.374496° North latitude / 82.492283° West longitude

Here’s a zoomed-out look, showing the coastline of Cuba and the city of Havana:

Envisat ASAR radar satellite image courtesy European Space Agency.

And here’s the big picture, showing Cuba, Key West and the rig location:

We’ll keep watching this area.  Many people are concerned about the potential of a major spill from this site affecting the east coast of Florida and the southeastern US, and the lack of oil spill response coordination and cooperation between Cuba and the United Sates.