Photo of flooding aftermath in West Virginia

Come Hell & High Water: Flooding in West Virginia

In late June devastating flooding hit many communities across southern West Virginia resulting in over 20 fatalities and complete destruction of homes and businesses across the Mountain State. Because we are located in West Virginia and have been studying mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining across Appalachia, we’ve received a number of questions about what role MTR mining may have played in this recent disaster.

Depending on the amount of mining in the impacted watersheds, the quality of existing baseline data, and the number of measurements taken during and after the flood, scientists may not find a “smoking gun” directly linking the severity of this flood event with MTR mining. But let us take a look at what we do know about the relationship between flooding and MTR mining.

Drainage Sketches

 

If you are familiar with stormwater runoff issues then you have probably seen a diagram like the one above. Soil and vegetation absorb water. Impervious surfaces, like rock and pavement, do not. Since blasting off ridge tops to reach seams of buried coal strips the mountains of soil and vegetation, it seems logical that MTR mining would contribute to more intense flash floods. But even after decades of study there are a surprising number of gaps in our understanding of exactly how mining alters flooding.

Photo of flooding aftermath around Clendenin, W.Va.

Debris and mud are strewn around Clendenin, W.Va., after flood waters receded. Photo by Sam Owens, courtesy Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Research conducted so far suggests that MTR mining can contribute to greater flooding during intense rainfall events, but some studies actually found less severe flooding in watersheds with mining. Several of these studies suggested that valley-fills and underground mine workings have the ability to retain water, which may account for less severe “peaks” during moderately severe storms. If you want to dig into the details, I recommend starting with the summary of hydrological studies on MTR contained in Table 1 of this paper by Dr. Nicholas Zegre and Andrew Miller from West Virginia University.

What most of these studies have in common is that the researchers must at least know where mining occurred and how much surface area was impacted by said mining. This is where our work here at SkyTruth comes into play because we’ve been mapping the when, where, and how much of MTR mining for over forty years.

Thanks to a satellite record going back to the 1970’s, SkyTruth can look back in time to measure the footprint of mining in Appalachia. We continue to make this data freely available for research, and so far our decade-by-decade analysis has been cited in at least six peer-reviewed studies on the environmental and public health impacts of MTR. These studies investigate everything from the increased risk of birth defects and depression to impacts on biodiversity and hydrology. But clearly there are still many unanswered questions left to research.

Finally, it is worth noting that much of the rainfall (left) was concentrated on Greenbrier County, a part of the state with relatively little MTR mining. Neighboring Nicholas County, however, does have some large mines so it may be possible for hydrologists to diagnose and measure the difference in flooding between mined and unmined watersheds which received equivalent rainfall. But that will take time to decipher and analyze.

In the meantime, SkyTruth and our partners at Appalachian Voices and Duke University are working this summer  to update and refine our data about the spread of MTR mining in Appalachia. The resulting data will allow more comprehensive and more accurate research on the effects of MTR mining. Our vision is for this research and resulting studies on the impacts of MTR to lead to better decision-making about flood hazards, future mine permits, and mine reclamation.

Impact Story: SkyTruth Measures Advance of Mountaintop Destruction in Appalachia

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In recent decades, advances in technology–aided by low fuel costs and driven by the nation’s voracious demand for energy – have allowed mining companies to extract coal more profitably than through traditional underground mining methods. In Appalachia, these developments led to a rise of a new kind of coal mining, aptly named by its critics as “mountaintop removal,” because forest cover is first cut away and explosives are used to blast ridge tops and expose the coal seams beneath.

This form of strip mining also produces tons of “waste rock” (the parts of the mountain of no use to coal companies) that miners dump into neighboring valleys. The process is called “valley fill” and has buried more than a thousand miles of streams, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – posing immediate health and safety risks to local residents, threatening downstream drinking water supplies, and degrading or destroying some of the most ecologically significant forest and aquatic habitats on the planet.

Although the physical impact of mountaintop removal (MTR) on the landscape is more extensive than logging or development, there had been no accounting of the amount of land and locations affected until Appalachian Voices asked us to investigate. The results were shocking.

As miners began blasting away at mountains throughout Appalachian coal country, activists fought back passionately by forming new grassroots groups, taking to the streets, lobbying lawmakers, and speaking out in the press. But nobody – not even the government agencies charged with overseeing the industry – had a reliable map of where mining was underway and how many mountains had already been leveled. In fact, West Virginia officials acknowledged a significant mismatch between the mining permits they had issued, and actual mining activity in the state. Landsat satellite images and aerial survey photographs were publicly available but interpreting the data required expertise that the activists did not have. So, the nonprofit group Appalachian Voices called on SkyTruth for help.

Our experts used the satellite data to map the historical occurrence of mountaintop removal mining over a 30-year period. We selected 24 of the best cloudless, summertime shots for the years 1976, 1985, 1995 and 2005. The next step was to come up with a classification system that identified active mining, and differentiated between mountaintop removal mines and other types of surface mining in the region.

The U.S. Office of Surface Mining’s official definition of “mountaintop” mining was too vague for a GIS model. So, using their guidelines,  we incorporated the concept that the mines had to cross ridge tops and impact a significant area of ridge top. We then checked our work for accuracy against detailed aerial photographs.

The resulting map showed the spread of mountaintop removal mining across a 59-county area in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Virginia. The amount of landscape directly impacted by mountaintop removal increased by 3.5 times from a total of 77,000 acres in 1985 to more than 272,000 acres in 2005. The size of individual mines also increased, some to more than 15 square miles (an area as big as the city of Alexandria, Virginia). In all, the satellites show more than 2,700 ridge tops were impacted. Read more about how the analysis was conducted.

Mountaintop Removal Mines

Total MTR Mined Area since 1976  445,792 Acres
Largest Single Mined Area  10,410 Acres
Median Mined Area  128 Acres
Average Mined Area  406 Acres
Number of Ridges Mined  2,789
Total Acres of Impacted Ridges  130,655 Acres
Largest Ridge Removed  504 Acres

Matt Wasson, director of programs at Appalachian Voices, says the map has been an invaluable resource for those fighting mountaintop removal.

“It just filled in a huge gap, a question that came up again and again: How much land had been used up by mountaintop removal mining?” Wasson says. “SkyTruth offered a very credible and fully independent way to answer that question.”

Wasson says his group used the SkyTruth research to build the initial version of its “What’s My Connection? online map that lets people to type in their zip codes to see how their electricity supply is directly connected to mountaintop removal mining, and the communities affected by that practice.

More recently, Appalachian Voices and the Natural Resources Defense Council employed our map in its “Reclamation Fail” project that refutes mining industry assertions that valley fills provide much needed level, buildable land to stimulate local economies and create jobs. When the two nonprofit groups put the industry claim to the test, they found the vast majority – 89 percent – of the valley-fill sites had seen no economic development activity.

“That’s why we partnered with SkyTruth,” Wasson says. “They do credible work. They are a step removed from peer advocacy and are able to issue an objective report.”

We also used the historical data and variables such as coal thickness and overburden (the rock and soil that has to be blasted and removed before reaching the coal seam) to create a risk map that helps predict where coal companies might go next. We put the map to work in a preliminary investigation of what was driving mining expansion in Wise County, Virginia.

Independent academics are also using our MTR dataset to produce groundbreaking studies that are fundamentally changing the debate about the societal costs and benefits of MTR. In a 2011 study, Dr. Melissa Ahern (health economist at Washington State University), Dr. Michael Hendryx, (epidemiologist at West Virginia University) and their colleagues found “significantly higher” rates of birth defects in communities near MTR operations.

And Dr. Emily Bernhardt, a biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, led a 2010 study  that provides the first conclusive evidence of mountaintop removal mining’s direct link to downstream water pollution and related environmental destruction.

Bernhardt and her colleagues used the historical data we had mapped along with studies of water quality and invertebrate biodiversity collected by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.  They found that mining operations – even relatively small ones – can seriously debilitate ecosystems. The study, which was featured in the August 9, 2010 issue of Nature magazine and later published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology, raises serious doubts about the industry’s contention that there is no need for tighter water-quality standards to keep mountaintop removal from contaminating drinking water relied on by communities downstream of the mines.

When asked by Nature about the significance of the new study, EPA officials issued a statement calling the findings “generally consistent” with its own research. This work underpins EPA’s controversial decision to revoke a mining permit that had already been issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. It was only the second time in EPA’s history that they have exercised this authority under the Clean Water Act, and though it was challenged all the way up to the Supreme Court, the EPA’s authority to overrule the Army Corps of Engineers was reaffirmed in federal court in 2014.

 

Bird’s Eye View of the Samarco Mine Disaster

On November 5, 2015, a mine-waste dam collapsed at an enormous iron mine in southeastern Brazil. The wave of toxic waste was at least twice the volume of the Johnstown Flood, and wiped out buildings and bridges over 40 miles downstream. Using post-spill satellite imagery and Google Earth, we have produced a bird’s-eye view of the devastation wrought by the deluge of arsenic-laced sludge. 

During the spill, we reported extensively on the immediate aftermath visible on satellite imagery, the remaining threat of a possible second dam failure (which thankfully did not materialize), and by looking back in time with historical satellite imagery, documented the increase of waste in the impoundment behind the failed Fundão Dam. We also wrote about how frequently these kinds of disasters occur around the world. 

The video above was created using Google Earth, comparing pre-spill imagery with images collected on November 9 and November 11. Our analyst Christian delineated the extent of the mine waste from a lake 70 miles downstream of the mine, all the way up to the town of Bento Rodrigues, the damaged Santarem Dam, and the failed Fundão impoundment (skipping a section of the river with cloudy imagery). Even further downstream, over 400 miles away, the Rio Doce ran orange for months afterwards. 

The confluence of the Rio Doce and the Atlantic on Feb. 10, 2016, over three months after the disaster, as seen by MODIS/Terra.

The confluence of the Rio Doce and the Atlantic on Feb. 10, 2016, over three months after the disaster, as seen by MODIS/Terra.

Now the Brazilian government is seeking $44 billion (USD) in damages, likening the disaster to the ecological devastation of the oil spilled in the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster. A police investigation recently concluded that Samarco Mineração, a joint venture of Vale SA and BHP Billiton, was “more than negligent” in overlooking structural failings and continuing to push for more production. 

What is even more alarming is that studies have shown a correlation between the frequency of tailings dam incidents and downturns in commodity prices, and the height of dams is soaring around the world as mines produce more and more waste. 

Déjà Vu All Over Again: Tailings Dam Failures at Metal Mines Around the World

Catastrophic mine spills have been in the news frequently enough that we are devoting a few articles to cover some of the problems plaguing existing mines and posing serious concerns for new and proposed mines like Pebble in Alaska, Red Chris in British Columbia, and NorthMet in Minnesota. In this post we’re only covering impoundment failures from metal mines and ore processing facilities (we’ll get to coal slurry and coal ash later, and we’ve already written about abandoned and inactive mines).
 
The litany of mine impoundment disasters around the world is a grim one. This year saw the Fundão tailings dam failure that killed at least 13 downstream of the Samarco iron mine in Minas Gerais, Brazil. 
 
 
Above: The village of Bento Rodrigues after the Fundao dam burst at the Samarco Mine. Image Credit: Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images
 

In August 2014 it was a 24,400,000 cubic meter spill from the Mt. Polley gold mine in British Columbia, Canada into the headwaters of the Fraser River (below) only a few weeks before a run of salmon would make their way upstream. However, on Dec.17, 2015, the provincial government announced there would be no criminal charges or fines assessed against Imperial Metals for the disaster. Al Hoffman, British Columbia’s chief inspector of mines stated, “Although there were poor practices, there were no non-compliances we could find.”

 
 
Above: Mine waste and debris enter Quesnel Lake five miles downstream of the failed impoundment at Imperial Metal’s Mt. Polley gold/copper mine. Image Credit: Jonathan Hayward, The Canadian Press 
If a mine can discharge 10 million cubic meters of polluted water and toxic mine waste into the environment, turning a quiet stream into a moonscape, and yet not have broken any rules, one must wonder if the rules and/or regulators are up to the task.  

Looking further back to 2010, a tailings dam failed at an alumina plant in Hungary, killing 10, injuring 150, and turning the “blue” Danube River a sickly, toxic red. A slight silver-lining, however, is that the downstream town of Devecser has risen from the sludge to become a model of green living and sustainable energy.
 
An aerial photo taken Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010 shows the ruptured wall of a red sludge reservoir of the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant in Kolontar, 160 km (100 mi) southwest of Budapest, Hungary. Note the excavators at bottom to give a sense of scale. Image Credit: AP Photos/MTI, Gyoergy Varga

 

Unfortunately, this list only recounts some of the more notorious disasters that reached the international press. For a more complete record of significant mine tailings dam failures, the World Information Service on Energy has complied a list of over 80 major non-coal spills since the 1960’s.   

Yet every time a new mine is proposed, even when the dam would be taller than the Washington Monument, we are reassured that this time we have the technology right, this time the dam won’t fail, and this time the environment will be left just as it was before we mined it. There are techniques, such dry-stacking, which are safer than conventional wet-tailings impoundments, but they are also more expensive. 

So unless the public and regulators demand that mines employ better practices, it seems we will have to keep reliving this story, year after year.


Stay tuned for the next part of this series, impoundment failures from coal mines in Appalachia.

Rising Waste Levels Observed at Samarco Prior to Disaster

Satellite imagery collected in the months leading up to the catastrophic Samarco mine disaster on November 5 in Minas Gerais, Brazil reveal a substantial increase in the amount of water and mine waste being stored behind the now failed Fundão Dam. Images taken by the satellite Earth-imaging company Planet Labs two months before the dam collapse show that Samarco, co-owned by BHP Billiton and Vale SA, were acting on their plans to raise the height of the dam. Compared to 2013 Astrium imagery in Google Earth, additional structures appear at the top of the dam, trees have been cleared and roads have been cut to accommodate the heightened level of waste in the reportedly 55 million cubic meter impoundment:

On the left side of the image you can see that by September 2015 the fluid level had risen substantially since May 2013, filling valleys upstream of the dam. In the center, you can see the growth of the dam as new contours are added, presumably to raise the crest of the dam. According to our calculations, between May 2013 and September 2015 the surface area of the impoundment increased by approximately 100 acres (406,000 sq. meters).

Though the comparison is not nearly so stark, here is another image collected by Planet Labs on October 2, side-by-side with the same September 25 image seen above. The images were collected at different times of day, so features that were in the shadows on one image will be visible in the other:



Mining and Civil Engineers – See anything notable about developments at the Fundão Dam? Leave a comment below. 

Threat Remains for Communities Downstream of Samarco Iron Mine

As we reported last week, a catastrophic dam failure at the Samarco iron mine in southern Brazil killed 11 and left 12 missing, buried the town of Bento Rodrigues under millions of cubic meters of toxic mine waste, and left thousands across the region without clean water. Troublingly, the threat of further flooding persists as heavy rains move in and mine operators BHB Billiton and Vale SA scramble to shore up the remaining impoundments.

DigitalGlobe and Google Earth have acquired high resolution imagery of the aftermath, and there are several issues of which mine workers, downstream residents, and emergency responders need to be mindful. First of all, the Santarem impoundment immediately downstream from the failed dam did not break in the initial deluge, though it could very well have been damaged by the 40 million cubic meters of water and mine waste that poured down from Fundao. In the image below you can see that Santarem Dam is still intact, evidenced by visible spillway, but we don’t know whether or not the dam’s structural integrity has been compromised by stress and erosion. 

Image Credit: DigitalGlobe/Google Earth Outreach


To the southwest of the failed Fundao dam is the Germano Dam, Samarco’s oldest and largest tailings impoundment. Reportedly this dam is drier and more stable than Santarem and Fundao, but all told the mine operator is mobilizing 500,000 cubic meters of rock to shore up both remaining dams. Reuters reports the repairs could take from 45 to 90 days, meanwhile the regional weather forecasts call for thunderstorms for the next 10 days. Below is the surviving Germano Dam (bottom left) and the failed Fundao Dam (center).

  Image Credit: DigitalGlobe/Google Earth Outreach 


The devastation is not just local, it extends far downstream. At the far eastern edge of DigitalGlobe’s recent acquisition, 40 km away as-the-crow-flies, a small farm/compound was partially wiped out by the flood of toxic red mud. You can see a bridge wiped out, the floodplain inundated, and multiple structures erased by the force of the flash flood. 
 

Image Credit: DigitalGlobe/Google Earth Outreach

To put this disaster in perspective, current estimates put the volume of the flood so far at 40 million cubic meters of mud, debris, and toxic waste. That makes this spill 2.6x larger than the infamous Johnstown Flood which killed over 2,200 in Pennsylvania back in 1889. 

We urge everyone living and working in the area and downstream to exercise extreme caution. The company reports they are monitoring the surviving dams with “radar, lasers, and drones,” but as the last image shows, the impact of another spill could be deadly even miles away from Bento Rodrigues. 


To view the imagery yourself in Google Earth, download this KML from Google Earth Outreach and DigitalGlobe. 

[Updated] Satellites Reveal Extent of Samarco Mine Disaster in Brazil

[Updated on Nov. 16 with additional satellite images]
On Thursday, Nov. 5 in the State of Minas Gerais, Brazil, two mine waste impoundments at the Samarco iron mine failed, burying the nearby town of Bento Rodrigues and sending 62 million cubic meters of toxic sludge downstream – impacting villages and rivers up to 400 kilometers away. So far the death toll is currently at nine, with 19 missing and 80% of the buildings in Bento Rodrigues destroyed. The mine, operated jointly by BHP/Billington and Vale SA, had increased output by 37% over the past year in spite of warnings from an independent report that the dam had design flaws that could lead to just such a failure.


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Image: Christophe Simon AFP/Getty Images
 

Digital Globe, a commercial satellite image provider, has acquired imagery of the aftermath, which is currently being analyzed by volunteers at the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team (HOT). If you are familiar with Open Street Map, you can give them a hand. Below we have pulled together some of the before-and-after visualizations put together by regional data transparency and open mapping group– Codigo Urbano
 Above is a broad view of one of the failed impoundments and the former town of Bento Rodrigues, population ~600. Below is a closer view of a part of the town that was buried under the toxic sludge. 
 Finally, on the Landsat 8 imagery we’ve complied below, you can see just how far downstream the impacts go – turning the river banks orange. High levels of toxicity have been detected in water samples taken 400 kilometers downstream.


For reference, here is an annotated version of the “after” image.

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Additionally, a Pleiades satellite operated by Airbus collected the following hi-resolution imagery of the disaster area. 

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See more at – www.disastercharter.org.

And to compare Landsat imagery, side-by-side and close-up, click the image below. 

 

A little more than a year ago we saw a similar disaster unfold at the Mt. Polley Gold Mine in Canada. Yet, every new mine proposal (like the Pebble Mine, currently on hold but proposed for the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska) assures us that modern technology and responsible mining practices will make these disasters a thing of the past. If that’s the case, why are we having déjà vu all over again?