SkyTruth Board Member Mary Anne Hitt: Activist Extraordinaire

Mary Anne Hitt has led Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign to extraordinary national success. But she honed her skills in Appalachia, with a little help from SkyTruth.

You might say Mary Anne Hitt has Appalachian activism in her blood. When she was growing up in Gatlinburg, Tennessee (where she attended Dolly Parton’s former high school), her father was Chief Scientist at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Back then, acid rain was decimating high elevation forests in the East, fueled by pollution from coal-fired power plants. Her father watched as iconic places in the park turned into forests of skeleton trees. He knew the science pointed to nearby power plants run by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and wanted to stop the pollution. But his warnings triggered some resistance from those who didn’t want to rock the boat. “So right from the start,” says Mary Anne, she was “immersed in the beauty and the threats” of protecting Appalachian forests. And she knew the costs of speaking out.

Those costs have never stopped her. Mary Anne graduated from the University of Tennessee, creating her own environmental studies major and forming a student environmental group that continues today. Later, she obtained a graduate degree in advocacy at the University of Montana. Now, she leads the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign; a national effort to retire all coal plants in the United States, moving towards 100% renewable energy by 2030, while supporting economic opportunities in communities affected by plant closures.

And she serves on SkyTruth’s board of directors. Her entre to SkyTruth is also steeped in Appalachian advocacy. In the early aughts, Mary Anne was Executive Director of Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to fighting mountaintop mining, fracked-gas pipelines and other harmful activities in Appalachia, while advancing energy and economic alternatives that allow Appalachian communities to thrive. Appalachian Voices is one of SkyTruth’s conservation partners; a relationship that began under Mary Anne’s leadership.

As Mary Anne tells it, Appalachian Voices was fighting mountaintop mining and construction of a new coal plant in southwest Virginia. While fighting the plant, they discovered that 200 new power plants were planned across the country. In other words, a whole new generation of power plants was on the books to replace aging plants. A coalition of grassroots groups and local citizens, organized with help from the Sierra Club, worked to stop them, fighting permits at every stage, slowing the process down and making financial backers nervous.

Figure 1. Mary Anne Hitt

Appalachian Voices contacted SkyTruth to help them convey the vast extent of mountaintop mining in Appalachia as part of their work. In response, SkyTruth developed the first scientifically credible database on the extent of mountaintop mining in the region. (You can read more about this collaboration and what we found here.) SkyTruth continues to update this database every year, providing scientists and others valuable information that supports research on the ecological and human health effects of mountaintop mining.

SkyTruth’s database helped support the broader advocacy work Appalachian Voices was spearheading to fight coal mining and power plants in the region. Collectively, environmental, legal, and grassroots groups nationwide stopped almost all of the proposed power plants, according to Mary Anne. (Ironically, the one in southwest Virginia actually did get built.) “If these plants had been built it would have been doom for our climate,” Mary Anne says now. “There would have been no room for renewables…Grassroots people working in their communities made it happen. That’s what makes me most proud.”

Mary Anne took her successful experience fighting power plants in Appalachia and brought it to the Sierra Club as Deputy Director of the Beyond Coal Campaign in 2008, later becoming Director. The Sierra Club has built on those early lessons and applied them to shutting down all coal plants in the United States. Today, 312 of 530 plants that existed in 2010 have retired or announced their retirement. And according to Mary Anne, the United States reached a promising benchmark a year ago: last April marked the first time we obtained more energy from renewables than from coal. In fact, in 2019 the US consumed more power from renewable energy than from coal for the first time in 130 years. “Most of our arguments now are economic,” says Mary Anne. “The power from a coal plant is more expensive than renewable energy, so people don’t want it. People will keep demanding renewables.”

In April of this year, Mary Anne took on an even bigger responsibility at Sierra Club – the National Director of Campaigns, a new position in the organization where she oversees all the organization’s campaign work. It’s a big job, on top of being a mother to her ten-year old daughter. So why did she agree to join the SkyTruth Board? “Ever since my daughter was born,” says Mary Anne, “I had a policy of not being on any boards because I have a demanding job and serving on boards was more time away from her. But I really believe that SkyTruth’s work is foundational for the environmental movement. I think the ability to see for yourself what’s going on, especially in this age of misinformation, where people don’t know what to believe… the ability to show people with their own eyes what’s going on, I think is more important than ever.”

She also knows from her years in advocacy that having access to technical resources and expertise is challenging for nonprofits, especially small ones. “To provide this to groups in a way that’s technically sophisticated, but they can use it, is a real service,” she says. And SkyTruth has had significant impact on key issues, she notes, particularly given its small size. “To the extent that I can help, I want to do that. And I love that they are based in West Virginia and Shepherdstown – it’s a cool part of SkyTruth’s story.”

But a professional life of activism involves a lot of conflict, Mary Anne acknowledges. To balance it out, she and her husband Than Hitt, a stream ecologist, sing and play guitar at local fundraisers and other community events. Than is a 10th generation West Virginian and they live in Shepherdstown, where SkyTruth is based. The local singing is all for fun she says.

“It’s a way to connect with people you wouldn’t otherwise… And having a creative outlet helps keep me whole.” With activism, “you’re living in your head a lot. Music is in your heart. We all need that.”

 

SkyTruth 2020: What to Expect in the New Year

Oil pollution at sea, mountaintop mining, Conservation Vision and more on SkyTruth’s agenda.

SkyTruth followers know that we generated a lot of momentum in 2019, laying the groundwork for major impact in 2020. Here’s a quick list of some of our most important projects underway for the new year.

Stopping oil pollution at sea: SkyTruth has tracked oil pollution at sea for years, alerting the world to the true size of the BP oil spill, tracking the ongoing leak at the Taylor Energy site until the Coast Guard agreed to take action, and flagging bilge dumping in the oceans. Bilge dumping occurs when cargo vessels and tankers illegally dump oily wastewater stored in the bottom of ships into the ocean. International law specifies how this bilge water should be treated to protect ocean ecosystems. But SkyTruth has discovered that many ships bypass costly pollution prevention equipment by simply flushing the bilge water directly into the sea.

In 2019 SkyTruth pioneered the identification of bilge dumping and the vessels responsible for this pollution by correlating satellite imagery of oily slicks with Automatic Identification System (AIS) broadcasts from ships. For the first time, we can ID the perps of this devastating and illegal practice.

PERKASA AIS track

Figure 1. SkyTruth identified the vessel PERKASA dumping bilge water via AIS broadcast track overlain on Sentinel-1 image. 

But the Earth’s oceans are vast, and there’s only so much imagery SkyTruthers can analyze. So we’ve begun automating the detection of bilge dumping using an Artificial Intelligence (AI) technique called machine learning. With AI, SkyTruth can analyze thousands of satellite images of the world’s oceans every day –- a process we call Conservation Vision — finding tiny specks on the oceans trailing distinctive oily slicks, and then naming names, so that the authorities and the public can catch and shame those skirting pollution laws when they think no one is looking.

A heads up to polluters: SkyTruth is looking. 

We got a big boost last month when Amazon Web Services (AWS) invited SkyTruth to be one of four nonprofits featured in its AWS re:Invent Hackathon for Good, and awarded SkyTruth one of seven AWS Imagine Grants. We’ll be using the funds and expertise AWS is providing to expand our reach throughout the globe and ensure polluters have nowhere to hide.

Protecting wildlife from the bad guys: Many scientists believe the Earth currently is facing an extinction crisis, with wildlife and their habitats disappearing at unprecedented rates.   

But SkyTruth’s Conservation Vision program using satellite imagery and machine learning can help. Beginning in 2020, SkyTruth is partnering with Wildlife Conservation Society to train computers to analyze vast quantities of image data to alert rangers and wildlife managers to threats on the ground. These threats include roads being built in protected areas, logging encroaching on important habitats, mining operations growing beyond permit boundaries, and temporary shelters hiding poachers. With better information, protected area managers can direct overstretched field patrols to specific areas and catch violators in the act, rather than arriving months after the fact.  It can alert rangers before they discover a poaching camp by chance (and possibly find themselves surprised and outgunned).

To make this revolution in protected area management possible we will be building a network of technology and data partners, academic researchers, and other tech-savvy conservationists to make the algorithms, computer code, and analytical results publicly available for others to use. By publicly sharing these tools, Conservation Vision will enable others around the world to apply the same cutting-edge technologies to protecting their own areas of concern, launching a new era of wildlife and ecosystem protection. In 2020 we expect to undertake two pilot projects in different locations to develop, refine, and test Conservation Vision and ultimately transform wildlife protection around the world.

Identifying mountaintop mining companies that take the money and run. SkyTruth’s Central Appalachia Surface Mining database has been used by researchers and advocates for years to document the disastrous environmental and health impacts of mountaintop mining. Now, SkyTruth is examining how well these devastated landscapes are recovering.

Figure 2. Mountaintop mine near Wise, Virginia. Copyright Alan Gignoux; Courtesy Appalachian Voices; 2014-2.

To do this, we are generating a spectral fingerprint using satellite imagery for each identified mining area. This fingerprint will outline the characteristics of each site, including the amount of bare ground present and information about vegetation regrowth. In this way we will track changes and measure recovery by comparing the sites over time to a healthy Appalachian forest. 

Under federal law, mining companies are required to set aside money in bonds to make sure that funds are available to recover their sites for other uses once mining ends. But the rules are vague and vary by state. If state inspectors determine that mine sites are recovered adequately, then mining companies reclaim their bonds, even if the landscape they leave behind looks nothing like the native forest they destroyed. In some cases, old mines are safety and health hazards as well as useless eyesores, leaving communities and taxpayers to foot the bill for recovery. SkyTruth’s analysis will provide the public, and state inspectors, an objective tool for determining when sites have truly recovered and bonds should be released, or when more should be done to restore local landscapes.

Characterizing toxic algal blooms from space: Harmful algal blooms affect every coastal and Great Lakes state in the United States. Normally, algae are harmless — simple plants that form the base of aquatic food webs. But under the right conditions, algae can grow out of control causing toxic blooms that can kill wildlife and cause illness in people. 

 SkyTruth is partnering with researchers at Kent State University who have developed a sophisticated technique for detecting cyanobacteria and other harmful algae in the western basin of Lake Erie — a known hotspot of harmful algal blooms. They hope to extend this work to Lake Okeechobee in Florida. But their method has limitations: It uses infrequently collected, moderate resolution 4-band multispectral satellite imagery to identify harmful blooms and the factors that facilitate their formation. SkyTruth is working to implement the Kent State approach in the more accessible Google Earth Engine cloud platform, making it much easier to generate updates to the analysis, and offering the possibility of automating the update on a regular basis.  We anticipate that this tool eventually will enable scientists and coastal managers to quickly identify which algal blooms are toxic, and which are not, simply by analyzing their characteristics on imagery.

Revealing the extent of fossil fuel drilling on public lands in the Colorado River Basin: Modern oil and gas drilling and fracking is a threat to public health, biodiversity and the climate. For example, researchers from Johns Hopkins University used our data on oil and gas infrastructure in Pennsylvania to examine the health effects on people living near these sites and found higher premature birth rates for mothers in Pennsylvania that live near fracking sites as well as increased asthma attacks.

The Trump Administration is ramping up drilling on America’s public lands, threatening iconic places such as Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. Chaco Canyon is  a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains the ruins of a 1,200 year-old city that is sacred to native people. According to the Center for Western Priorities, 91% of the public lands in Northwest New Mexico surrounding the Greater Chaco region are developed for oil and gas, and local communities complain of pollution, health impacts and more.

Figure 3. Chaco Canyon Chetro Ketl great kiva plaza. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

In 2020 SkyTruth will deploy a machine learning model we developed in 2019 that identifies oil and gas drilling sites in the Rocky Mountain West with 86.3% accuracy. We will apply it to the Greater Chaco Canyon region to detect all oil and gas drilling sites on high-resolution aerial survey photography. We hope to then use these results to refine and expand the model to the wider Colorado River Basin. 

Local activists in northwestern New Mexico have fought additional drilling for the past decade. Last year, New Mexico’s congressional delegation successfully led an effort to place a one-year moratorium on drilling within a 10-mile buffer around the park. Activists view this as a first step towards permanent protection. SkyTruth’s maps will help provide them with visual tools to fight for permanent protection.

A new SkyTruth website: We’ll keep you up to date about these projects and more on a new, revamped SkyTruth website under development for release later this year. Stay tuned for a new look and more great SkyTruthing in the year ahead!

New Data Available on the Footprint of Surface Mining in Central Appalachia

The area of Central Appalachia impacted by surface mining has increased — by an amount equal to the size of Liechtenstein — despite a decline in coal production.

SkyTruth is releasing an update for our Central Appalachian Surface Mining data showing the extent of surface mining in Central Appalachia. While new areas continue to be mined, adding to the cumulative impact of mining on Appalachian ecosystems, the amount of land being actively mined has declined slightly.

This data builds on our work published last year in the journal PLOS One, in which we produced the first map to ever show the footprint of surface mining in this region. We designed the data to be updated annually. Today we are releasing the data for 2016, 2017, and 2018.

Mountaintop mine near Wise, Virginia. Copyright Alan Gignoux; Courtesy Appalachian Voices; 2014-2.

Coal production from surface mines, as reported to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), has declined significantly for the Central Appalachian region since its peak in 2008. Likewise, the area of land being actively mined each year has steadily decreased since 2007. But because new land continues to be mined each year, the overall disturbance to Appalachian ecosystems has increased. From 2016 to 2018 the newly mined areas combined equaled 160 square kilometers – an area the size of the nation of Liechtenstein. One of the key findings of our research published in PLOS ONE was that the amount of land required to extract a single metric ton of coal had tripled from approximately 10 square meters in 1985 to nearly 30 square meters in 2015. Our update indicates that this trend still holds true for the 2016-2018 period: Despite the overall decrease in production, in 2016 approximately 40 square meters of land were disturbed per metric ton of coal produced – an all time high. This suggests that it is getting harder and harder for companies to access the remaining coal.

Active mine area (blue) and reported surface coal mine production in Central Appalachia (red) as provided by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). The amount of coal produced has declined much more dramatically than the area of active mining.

This graph shows the disturbance trend for surface coal mining in Central Appalachia. Disturbance is calculated by dividing the area of actively mined land by the reported coal production for Central Appalachia as provided by the EIA.

Tracking the expansion of these mines is only half the battle. We are also developing landscape metrics to assess the true impact of mining on Appalachian communities and ecosystems. We are working to generate a spectral fingerprint for each identified mining area using satellite imagery. This fingerprint will outline the characteristics of each site; including the amount of bare ground present and information about vegetation regrowing on the site. In this way we will track changes and measure recovery by comparing the sites over time to a healthy Appalachian forest.

Mining activity Southwest of Charleston, WV. Land that was mined prior to 2016 is visible in yellow, and land converted to new mining activity between 2016 and 2018 is displayed in red.

Recovery matters. Under federal law, mine operators are required to post bonds for site reclamation in order “to ensure that the regulatory authority has sufficient funds to reclaim the site in the case the permittee fails to complete the approved reclamation plan.” In other words, mining companies set aside money in bonds to make sure that funds are available to recover their sites for other uses once mining ends. If state inspectors determine that mine sites are recovered adequately, then mining companies recover their bonds.

But the regulations are opaque and poorly defined; most states set their own requirements for bond release and requirements vary depending on the state, the inspector, and local landscapes. And as demand for coal steadily declines, coal companies are facing increasing financial stress, even bankruptcy. This underlines the importance of effective bonding that actually protects the public from haphazardly abandoned mining operations that may be unsafe, or unusable for other purposes.

We are now working to track the recovery of every surface coal mine in Central Appalachia. By comparing these sites to healthy Appalachian forests we will be able to grade recovery. This will allow us to examine how fully these sites have recovered, determine to what degree there is consistency in what qualifies for bond-release, and to what extent the conditions match a true Appalachian forest.

Monitoring the tailings dam failure of the Córrego do Feijão mine

On Friday, January 25th, the tailings dam to the Córrego do Feijão mine burst near Brumadinho, State of Minas Gerais, Brazil (the moment of failure was captured on video). Operated by Brazilian mining company Vale S.A., this incident recalls the collapse of Vale’s Samarco Mine in 2015 which unleashed 62 million cubic meters of toxic sludge downstream. As of Monday, the death toll reached 120, however, the full extent of damage is unknown. To monitor the impact, here is a Sentinel-2 scene of Córrego do Feijão from eighteen days before and seven days after the dam’s failure. As of February 2nd, approximately 2.85 km2 of sludge surrounds the region.

Sentinel 2 scene showing the extent of flooding as a result of the tailings dam failure. As a result of the failure, 3 billion gallons of mining waste were spilled.

This slider, below, shows the area near the town of Brumadinho before and after the dam failure with the inundation highlighted in yellow, it can be accessed here.

Updating SkyTruth’s mountaintop removal mining dataset

In Appalachia, it is not uncommon to see the effects that mountaintop removal mining have on the surrounding ecosystems.  As someone living in the great Mountain State of West Virginia, one of the projects that caught my interest when I started my internship at SkyTruth was their work mapping the extent of surface mines in central Appalachia.  There are many risks that come with this type of mining. Lung cancer, kidney disease, and birth defects are more likely in areas with high exposure to the toxins produced by mountaintop mining. There are currently no government funded long-term health studies in progress.  The last one, started during the Obama administration, was shut down in August 2017.

SkyTruth has been using the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) to detect surface mines.  Basically, this algorithm measures vegetation intensity over an area. So, areas with low NDVI scores – or low vegetation levels – show up as mines.  Seems simple enough. But the challenge to using NDVI to detect surface mines is that roads, parking lots, lakes, and buildings also have very low levels of vegetation, so they can confuse the algorithm into believing that they’re actually mines.  The two NDVI images below – one showing Charleston, West Virginia, and another showing a surface mine in central Appalachia – show how difficult it can be for the algorithm to tell things apart.

An NDVI image of Charleston, West Virginia.

NDVI image of Charleston, WV.

Compare that image with an image of surface mines in central Appalachia:

An NDVI image of surface mines in central Appalachia.

NDVI image of surface mines in central Appalachia.

Both of these images show areas with low NDVI scores (or low vegetation intensity).  Low NDVI scores are indicated by the darker shades in each of the images. The areas that have a high NDVI score are colored in lighter/whiter shades.  Using these images as an example, it’s easy to see how the algorithm that we’re using can get confused. Since things can look alike, we needed to figure out a way to help the algorithm determine which things were roads and buildings and which things were actually mines.  

SkyTruth’s surface mine mapping work relies on the use of a data mask to separate out the region’s urban areas, water features, and roads.  The mask is used to block out areas from the analysis which have a similar spectral signature to mines (basically roads, buildings, water, parking lots, etc.).  Since the surface mine mapping project is updated annually, the mask needs to be updated annually, too. First, I downloaded the area files, which are provided by US Census Bureau, and then I buffered the roads and water features by 60 meters. The buffer is to ensure that these areas are not picked up by the algorithm. The image below shows the mask that will cover the features that have a low vegetation index that could potentially be incorrectly identified as a surface mine.

An NDVI image of SkyTruth’s mountaintop mining study area with roads, water, and urban areas masked.

NDVI image of SkyTruth’s mountaintop mining study area with roads, water, and urban areas masked.

This next image shows how the mask covers an area like Charleston, West Virginia and blocks the algorithm from detecting it as a surface mine.  The other features in the image that have low vegetation intensity – like potential mines – are still visible as darkly areas in the image.

An NDVI image of Charleston, West Virginia with the mask applied.

NDVI image of Charleston, West Virginia with the mask applied.

SkyTruth, Appalachian Voices, and scholars at Duke University recently published the first-ever annual footprints of mountaintop mining in central Appalachia between 1985 and 2015.  You can learn more about it from SkyTruth’s lead author, Christian Thomas, or you can read the whole paper in PLOS ONE. The updated map will give SkyTruth, Appalachian Voices, and scholars at Duke University, the most current information about the footprint of surface mining in Appalachia, and it will allow them to update their annual footprints with 2016 and 2017.  I hope that this map will help inform the public about where surface mines in Appalachia are located, and that it will show people just how much of the Appalachian region is affected.