New Writer–Editor Amy Mathews Joins SkyTruth Team

Telling SkyTruth’s stories

SkyTruth is both an intensely local and vibrantly global organization. Based in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, many of our highly talented staff are long-time residents (and some were even born and raised here). That makes our work on Appalachian issues such as mountaintop mining and fracking personal − it’s happening in our backyard, typically with little oversight from government agencies. But confronting global environmental challenges sometimes means reaching beyond local borders and finding the right people to take on a task that no one else has tackled before. And so SkyTruth’s family of staff and consultants includes programmers and others from around the world, plus top notch research partners at universities and other institutions.

The SkyTruth team in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Photo by Hali Taylor.

As SkyTruth’s new Writer–Editor, I plan to bring you their stories in coming months, to add to the remarkable findings and tools the staff regularly shares through this blog. We’ll learn more about the people whose passion propels our cutting-edge work. And we’ll learn more about all of you – the SkyTruthers who use these tools and information to make a difference in the world. We’ll share your impact stories: That is, how you’ve made a difference in your neighborhood, state, nation or the world at large.

To start, I’ll share a little bit about myself. As a kid, stories hooked me on conservation. I used to watch every National Geographic special I could find and never missed an episode of Wild Kingdom (remember that?). My fascination with all things wild led me to major in wildlife biology at Cornell University. But I quickly realized that I wasn’t a scientist at heart − I was more interested in saving creatures than studying them. I spent spring semester of my junior year in Washington, D.C. and shifted my focus to environmental policy. That decision led to dual graduate degrees in environmental science and public affairs at Indiana University and a long career in environmental policy analysis, program evaluation, and advocacy in Washington.

Urban life and policy gridlock eventually pushed me to Shepherdstown, where nature was closer at hand. I became involved in Shepherdstown’s American Conservation Film Festival, which reignited my passion for storytelling and the inspiration it can trigger. And so, after years of working and consulting for the federal government, conservation groups and charitable foundations, I returned to my conservation roots. I completed my M.A. in nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins University in May 2013 and left my policy work behind.

Radio-collared Mexican wolf. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Since then, my writing has appeared in publications such as The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, High Country News, Wonderful West Virginia and other outlets. In fact, my 2018 story on the endangered Mexican wolf for Earth Touch News recently won a Genesis Award from the Humane Society of the United States for Outstanding Online News. I was thrilled to be able to observe a family of wolves as part of my reporting for that story, and I always welcome new opportunities to go out in the field and learn about the important work conservationists are doing.

During my time as a freelance journalist, I also led workshops for the nonprofit science communication organization COMPASS, teaching environmental (and other) scientists how to communicate their work more effectively to journalists, policymakers, and others.

There’s one more thing I’d like to share: Although my official role at SkyTruth as Writer–Editor is new, I’ve known SkyTruth since its very beginning. I still remember the day SkyTruth founder John Amos and I sat down at our dining room table and he told me his vision for a new nonprofit. His goal was to level the playing field by giving those trying to protect the planet the same satellite tools used by industries exploiting the planet. John is my husband, and SkyTruth’s journey has been exciting, frightening, gratifying, and sometimes frustrating, with many highs and the occasional low. But it has never been boring.

I’m looking forward to sharing SkyTruth stories with all of you, making sure they move beyond the dining room table to your homes and offices, inspiring you, your colleagues, your friends and families to make the most of what SkyTruth has to offer. Feel free to reach out to me at info@skytruth.org if you’d like to share how you’ve used SkyTruth tools and materials. Just include my name in the subject line and the words “impact story.” Let’s talk!

Note: Portions of this text first appeared on the website amymathewsamos.com.

Visualizing the Expansion of Fracking in Pennsylvania: Part 3

If you have been following the first two posts in this series, you have been introduced to Pennsylvania’s hottest commodity: natural gas. The state has experienced a drilling boom with the development of the Utica and Marcellus shale formations, which underlie approximately 60% of the state. With Dry Natural Gas reserves estimated around 89.6 trillion cubic feet in 2017 (roughly ⅕ of the US total), natural gas development will likely play a big part in Pennsylvania’s future. The method for extracting natural gas from porous rock underneath the Earth’s surface, usually horizontal drilling paired with hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), is an extremely disruptive industrial process that could present significant human health and environmental repercussions (see also this compendium of public health studies related to fracking). Allegheny County, the focal point of SkyTruth’s previous analyses, has survived largely unscathed to this point, but developers have high hopes of expanding into the county.  

In order to see just how quickly natural gas development can expand, Allegheny residents need not look far. Allegheny’s neighbor to the south, Washington County, has become a critical site of natural gas production for the state of Pennsylvania. Not only does Washington County rank second in production among all Pennsylvania counties, but it also recently moved ahead of Susquehanna County as the home of the most active wells in Pennsylvania. Washington County is considered a part of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, with a population of approximately 207,000. Though this is a fraction of the population of Allegheny County, its close proximity could prove indicative of what is to come in the county if stricter regulations are not put in place. In our final entry of this series, we will examine the expansion of drilling and fracking in Washington County, with eyes toward how the trends here might carry over to Allegheny County.

 

 

The area shown above lies close to the town of West Finley, PA and surrounds the perimeter of the Four Seasons Camping Resort (shown in the center of this image series). This area is right on the PA/WV border, within the heart of the Utica and Marcellus formations. These images show the growth of drilling infrastructure in a relatively low population setting.

 

The image above (courtesy Google) gives us a closer look at one of the drilling fluid impoundments which can be seen at the top left corner of the previous scene. SkyTruth recently wrapped up its 2017 FrackFinder update, which mapped the extent of new drilling in Pennsylvania between 2015 and 2017. According to our findings, the average size of one of these impoundment is 1.4 acres, slightly larger than the average football field. These ponds sometimes hold fresh water, and at other times are temporarily storing leftover fluid used in the hydraulic fracturing process which can contain volatile, toxic chemical additives.

 

 

This second area sees significant well pad development from 2008 to 2017. Located right outside the small town of Bentleyville, PA, several wells are constructed along this bend of I-70. This area is made up of former coal towns.  Mining facilities dot the landscape, indicating that residents of this area are no strangers to resource extraction.

 

 

This third series of images shows the massive development of the agricultural land surrounding Cross Creek Lake, located right outside of West Middletown. Cross Creek County Park (outlined in black), which encompasses the lake and its surrounding area, is the largest park in the county and serves as a convenient day retreat for residents of the city of Washington, PA, Washington County’s largest city. Many people come to the lake to fish, but the fracking operations in the park could prove to be detrimental to the health of the lake’s fish, according to recent research.

 

 

This close-up on an area at the Southwestern portion of the park (courtesy Google Earth) shows a children’s playground that lies just under 1500 feet away from an active drilling site (at lower right). This is well within the proximity suggested to be potentially hazardous to public health.

 

 

This final image series is taken from right outside the Washington County towns of McGovern and Houston. The drilling operations, which pop up in just four years, are located in close proximity to developing neighborhoods, parks, The Meadows Racetrack and Casino, and the Allison Park Elementary School. Unlike the other images depicted throughout this evaluation, this development takes place around a well established suburban area, where public safety could be at risk should disaster strike at one of these drilling locations.

 

 

The image above (courtesy Google) presents yet another example of just how close these drilling sites are built to residential areas in some instances. Massive industrial development could be seen and heard from one’s back porch!

This is all happening directly south of Allegheny County, so it is plausible that similar development could take place there.

Allegheny County is in an unique situation given its location, its population density, and its relatively low levels of natural gas development. As pressures on Allegheny County mount, we hope that these bird’s eye view evaluations of drilling in nearby counties will help to enlighten and inform policy moving forward. To see SkyTruth’s analysis of the effect that setback distances can potentially have on natural gas development in Allegheny County, please follow the link provided here.

This is the final entry in a three-part series visually chronicling the expansion of fracking across Pennsylvania.  This series is meant to complement our work mapping setback distances and potential adverse public health consequences in Allegheny County, PA.  For more about our setbacks work, please check out our blog post and interactive web app. To read the first entry in this series, please follow this link. To see the second entry in the series, click here.

Visualizing the Expansion of Fracking in Pennsylvania: Part 2

This is the second entry in a three-part series visually chronicling the expansion of fracking across Pennsylvania.  This series is meant to complement our work mapping setback distances and potential adverse public health consequences in Allegheny County, PA.  For more about this work, please check out our blog post or the web app. To see the first entry in this series, please follow this link.

If you have read the first entry in this series, you have been introduced to the situation that Allegheny County, PA currently finds itself in. Hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) paired with horizontal drilling has become a well established method for breaking natural gas out of porous, but impermeable, rock formations like shale and silty sandstone. Pennsylvania has been inundated with these fracking operations over the past decade following the discovery of the massive gas reserves located in the Utica and Marcellus Shale formations. Although this discovery has led to a booming industry in Pennsylvania, these activities have also had adverse public health and environmental consequences.  

Susquehanna and Bradford Counties in the northern portion of the state are two examples of areas that have been heavily developed with natural gas wells and facilities. According to a report issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) in August of 2018, not only is Susquehanna County the largest producer of natural gas in the state, but it also accounts for 4% of the United States’ natural gas production. The same report points to Bradford County as the fourth largest natural gas producing county in the state, accounting for 13% of the state’s production. Although these two counties are both considered to be rural (their populations combined equal to roughly 8% of the population of Allegheny County, per the 2010 Census), the intensity of industrial infrastructure development across their landscapes has been astounding. In this post, we will look at the footprint the energy industry has created in both counties.

 

Figure 1

Figure 1 (shown above) gives an example of the development taking place in Susquehanna County. This time-series shows the expansion of wells over a seven year period in New Milford Township. The once agriculturally-dominated area is markedly changed by the introduction of gas drilling: new roads, fracking fluid impoundments, and supporting facilities carve up the landscape.

 

Figure 2(a)

 

Figure 2(b)

Figures 2(a) and 2(b) depict a very rapid expansion of drilling in Bradford County. Located between Troy Township and West Burlington Township, we’re able to see the development of ten new drilling sites in a 32 square kilometer area over just two years. These sites may have played a role in the 2.6 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of natural gas generated per day by Bradford County, according to the PA DEP’s August 2018 report.

 

Figure 3

Figure 3 shows an area near the city of Sayre in Bradford County. Situated along the border of New York and Pennsylvania, eight new drilling sites are developed between 2010 and 2013, along with subsequent roads and fracking fluid containment ponds. Drilling in these two counties is significant and — without a change in policy — could serve as a glimpse into Allegheny County’s drilling future.

To see SkyTruth’s analysis of the effect that setback distances can potentially have on natural gas development in Allegheny County, please follow the link provided here. Please be sure to check out Part 1 of this series and stay tuned for our final post in the series, detailing the current drilling scenario in one of Allegheny’s neighboring counties, Washington County.

2017 Frackfinder update

We’re excited to announce the 2017 update to our Pennsylvania FrackFinder data set.  Using the USDA’s most recent high-resolution aerial imagery for Pennsylvania, we’ve again updated our maps of the state’s drilling sites and wastewater impoundments.  Our revised maps show Pennsylvania’s drilling sites and wastewater impoundments as of October 2017.  

Our previous Pennsylvania FrackFinder projects identified the location of active well pads in imagery from 2005, 2008, 2010, 2013, and 2015. Our new dataset maps the drilling sites and wastewater impoundments that appeared on the landscape between October 2015 (the end of our last update) and October 2017 — the end of Pennsylvania’s 2017 National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) flight season.  We are happy to add the 2017 update to this already rich data set.

 

Pennsylvania drilling sites, 2005–2017

 

The goal of our FrackFinder projects has always been to fill the gaps in publicly available information related to where fracking operations in the Marcellus and Utica Shale were taking place.  Regrettably, there are often discrepancies between what’s on paper and what’s on the landscape. Permits for individual oil and gas wells are relatively accessible, but the permits are just approvals to drill: they don’t say if a site is active, when drilling and fracking began or ended, or if development of the drill site ever happened at all.

 

Pennsylvania wastewater impoundments, 2005–2017

 

We compared permit locations against 2017 NAIP imagery to determine whether drilling permits issued since the close of our 2015 Pennsylvania FrackFinder project were active. There were more than 3,100 drilling permits issued in Pennsylvania during our study period (October 11, 2015 to October 4, 2017).  Many of the drilling permits issued were located quite close together. Ultimately, we ended up with roughly 701 unique “clusters” of drilling permits to investigate and map.

We look forward to seeing how the public will use these revised data sets.  We hope researchers, NGOs and community advocates can use these unique data sets to gain a better understanding of the impact of fracking on Pennsylvania’s environment and public health.

Visualizing the Expansion of Fracking in Pennsylvania: Part 1

This will be the first entry in a three-part series visually chronicling the expansion of natural gas drilling with hydraulic fracturing — fracking — across Pennsylvania. This series is meant to complement our work mapping setback distances and potential adverse public health consequences in Allegheny County, PA. For more about this work, please check out our blog post and the web app.

Hydraulic fracturing (otherwise known as “fracking”) is a controversial and disruptive process that has taken the Pennsylvania landscape by storm. The state has become prime real estate for the extraction of natural gas given its location above both the Utica Shale and Marcellus Shale formations, two of the United States’ most fruitful reservoirs of natural gas. Over the past decade, prospectors and entrepreneurs have come from near and far to grow the region’s natural gas industry. As a result, parts of the state have become riddled with fracking pads, which aim to break the precious resource out of pockets of porous rock under the Earth’s surface for harvesting. There are human health and environmental consequences coinciding with this process, but little regulation protects the state’s counties from these adverse impacts of fracking.

Allegheny County, home to the city of Pittsburgh and over one million residents, stands as both a case study and as a potential stronghold against the encroachment of natural gas drilling. Their main defense against fracking lies in zoning regulations which require a “setback” between drilling sites and “occupied structures.” The current minimum setback distance in the state is 500 feet, but that has not stopped well pad development from slowly creeping closer to homes (and vice-versa, as new home construction moves into areas of pre-existing drilling). In this post, we will look at some of these areas in Allegheny County and try to gain insight into the county’s current state as it pertains to natural gas development.

 

This first area, located directly south of the Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT), shows some of this development.  In just four years, we see three new drilling sites pop up along a bend in I-376, as well as a drilling-related fluid retainment pond.  Notice the close proximity of the southernmost drilling site to these neighborhoods. A 500-foot setback distance may not be enough to protect these residential areas from potential health consequences linked to the fracking process:  recent research suggests that living within two miles (3.2 km) of a natural gas drilling site could subject you to adverse health effects.

 

This 3D image of the drilling site seen at the bottom left-hand of the scene in the gif above (courtesy Google Earth) shows just how close these drilling sites can get to residential areas.

 

This second set of images comes from the Forward Township, located on the Monongahela River along the border of Allegheny and Washington County.  Though not as heavily trafficked as the area surrounding PIT, the farms which lease their property to drilling companies could be putting their neighbors at risk.  Located near this well development is the William Penn School, a K-5 school, and several homes and farms. These residents might be facing potential threats without even having had a say in what is developed near them.

 

This example is located to the northwest of the towns of Tarentum and Brackenridge.  This is another demonstration of gas drilling in the county, with the pads appearing between 2010 and 2017.

 

This image, taken from the above scene, again shows just how close these drilling sites are being built to people’s homes.  This development is nearby where their children play and where people enjoy their time outside, as evidenced by the swimming pools which can be seen in the above image.  Though development in the county is sparse as of now, the groundwork is in place for a significant expansion of drilling in Allegheny County if setback distances are not strictly enforced or extended.

 

This 3D image (courtesy Google Earth) is from a farm immediately adjacent to the Pittsburgh Mills Mall in Tarentum. Notice that there are several houses that are extremely close to being within 500 feet towards the bottom left-hand of the scene; in fact, the house directly north of the drilling site is within 500 feet of the drilling site. This could be the landowner’s house, signifying that they have waived the minimum setback requirement for their home.

To see SkyTruth’s analysis of the effect that setback distances can potentially have on natural gas development in Allegheny County, please follow the link provided here.  And stay tuned for part two of this series, where we’ll look at fracking in Susquehanna and Bradford counties over the last decade.