Mining to begin in downsized National Monument

Late last year, President Trump announced a massive scaling back of the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), part of an even larger reduction of National Monuments in Utah, including nearby Bears Ears. Now a Canadian firm has announced plans to reopen a closed mine1 within the former boundaries of the old Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument but just barely outside of the new boundaries. This appears to contradict President Trump’s declaration that this land was being returned “to the people, the people of all of the states, the people of the United States.” It also seems at odds with his recent bitterness toward Canada and his new trade war with our northern neighbor. What’s going on here?

Colt Mesa mining claim (yellow) and downsized National Monument (red area) superimposed on high-resolution imagery from Google Earth. Boundary data courtesy of The Wilderness Society.

In this image, we can see that the new Monument boundary is just 240 meters from the Colt Mesa mining claim with existing unpaved access roads only 150 meters away. The roads are marked in blue and criss-cross a dry riverbed. We expect these roads to be widened significantly and the area around the roads to be negatively impacted due to trucks and machinery. Given this proximity, the now much smaller National Monument will almost certainly be affected by heavy vehicular traffic day and night, and the attendant noise, dust, and diesel pollution.

The Colt Mesa mine relative to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, showing both the original Monument as designated in 1996, and the new, greatly reduced Monument.


The change in boundary illustrated by interactive slider, click here to view this in fullscreen mode.

This claim occupies 200 acres of previously protected land and, if this mining claim is developed as the company expects, we are expecting to see major changes to the area as they use increasingly destructive techniques to access the minerals beneath and dispose of the resulting “wasterock” and mine tailings.

An oblique view of the area.

The drastic downsizing of National Monument is being challenged in court by many organizations while the White House continues to insist this was about handing the power of conservation back to the state, and not about mining. The lawsuits are currently pending, so it remains to be seen if any land will be disturbed before these legal actions are resolved by the courts. In the meantime, we will be monitoring the area for signs of disturbance using Planet and other satellite imagery.

1 – The Colt Mesa mine was originally developed in the early 1970s to produce copper, silver, molybdenum, cobalt and uranium. It ceased production in 1974. It is a small mine by global standards, but these minerals are currently in high demand for use in electronics.

An Update on the Taywood West Surface Mine

After our discovery of what appeared to be a significant amount of mining taking place outside the permit boundaries provided by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP), we did a little digging to try and get a better idea of what exactly happened.

With the help of colleagues at Appalachian Voices, we found that a Notice of Violation (NOV) was issued for the Taywood West mine on February 22, 2018 (see the NOV here), for a sediment violation on the southern side of the mine. After some additional investigation, Appalachian Voices found that the Taywood West mine has had two boundary revisions over the course of its lifetime. One of these revisions accounted for ~35 acres of the disturbed area we previously wrote about.

This map shows the Taywood West Surface Mine permit boundary, shaded in red and yellow, and the area added to the existing permit in orange.

As of the time of writing, the updated permit boundary for the Taywood West Surface mine is still not present in the data available from to WVDEP. We were able to georeference the WVDEP’s updated permit map (see above), and display it over PlanetScope imagery. To see the discrepancy yourself, check out the slider below:

It is not clear why this permit boundary revision has not yet been included in the official mine permits database provided by WVDEP. But this example serves to highlight that — in addition to enabling scientific research — our mine footprint map can be used in a monitoring capacity as well, by anyone interested in watchdogging this mining activity. You can view our surface mining data here.

Planet Imagery sheds light on Mine Expansions outside of Permit Boundaries

We were recently reviewing imagery of mine sites which experienced growth in 2017. We overlaid the mine permit boundaries that show where the government has legally granted companies permission to mine. We used our Landsat-based surface mining data to identify a set of candidate sites to examine more closely with higher-resolution Planet imagery through Planet’s Ambassadors Program. While looking at these sites, we noticed mining activity that seems to be occurring outside of permitted areas.

The Taywood West Mine as it appeared on a high-resolution Planetscope satellite image in July 2017. The mining permit boundary is shown in red; mining-disturbed land, based on SkyTruth’s analysis of lower-resolution Landsat 8 satellite imagery, is shown in orange and closely matches what we are able to see in this Planet image.  Apparent mining-related activity outside the permit area is highlighted in yellow.

The mine site continued to expand after July; the image below shows the extent of mining on October 19. More land outside the permit boundary appears to have been cleared since July 30.

The Taywood West Surface Mine is located in Mingo County, WV approximately 12 kilometers northeast of the town of Kermit and 76 kilometers southwest of the state capitol in Charleston.

The Taywood West Surface Mine (pictured above) caught our attention when we noticed evidence of mining activity, which fell outside the mine’s permit boundary. In the image, areas overlain in red show the extent of the mining permit; the bright areas of bare rock and soil on the image show where mining activity (cut and fill) activity has apparently occurred as of the date of the image (October 2017). Fifty-two acres of mining-disturbed land lie outside of the permitted area. According to permit data downloaded from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP), the permit for the Taywood West mine was issued to Southeastern Land, LLC in August 2005 and will expire in August 2020.

A 2004 study conducted in West Virginia showed a surprisingly high degree of mismatch between permit boundaries and actual mining, but we thought the situation had improved since then. Now we are not so sure, and we’re wondering how widespread this problem is. Accurate assessment of the location and amount of existing mine-damaged land is critical for forecasting the cumulative downstream impacts of mining in deciding whether to approve permit applications for new mining. And it’s critical for planning and executing the extensive reclamation work this region needs to recover from the negative impacts of coal mining. Whose job is it to make sure miners stay within the boundaries of their mining permit?

This map, created by SkyTruth (www.skytruth.org), shows the current boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in green, and the proposed, reduced boundaries in red. Data was provided by The Wilderness Society and the Bureau of Land Management. Aerial images were provided by EcoFlight (www.ecoflight.org)

Our Shrinking National Monuments

The President announced sizeable reductions of several National Monuments earlier this week.  To help people see and understand the significance of this action, we produced an interactive map showing two of the most highly impacted Monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase – Escalante, both in Utah.  Users of the map can zoom in and explore the places that the Trump administration wants to remove from protection.

Vigorous public opposition and lawsuits by companies such as Patagonia make it likely the fate of the monuments will be tied up in court for many months. In the meantime, our friends at EcoFlight tell us the reduced monuments are considered “de facto” until the courts decide the inevitable legal challenges.

Thanks to The Wilderness Society for providing the proposed new boundaries, based on maps that were leaked last week; and to EcoFlight for sharing geotagged photos from their many flyovers, to help us illustrate what’s in jeopardy.

This map, created by SkyTruth (www.skytruth.org), shows the current boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in green, and the proposed, reduced boundaries in red. Data was provided by The Wilderness Society and the Bureau of Land Management. Aerial images were provided by EcoFlight (www.ecoflight.org)

This map shows the original boundaries of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monuments in green, and the reduced boundaries announced by the President on December 4 in red. Click on the camera icons to see aerial photographs of those locations.  Data provided by The Wilderness Society and the US Bureau of Land Management. Aerial photographs provided by EcoFlight.

We’ll add more photos and info to this map as we get it.  View the map here, and please share this link with interested friends:  http://bit.ly/2AxdRrv

Update on Our Efforts to Map Surface Mining in Appalachia

Some time has passed since we’ve written about our work mapping surface mining in central Appalachia, but rest assured, we’re still actively monitoring this devastating practice. Our mining work to date has focused on mapping the locations of these operations.

Researchers, some of whom are using our data, are beginning to draw troubling connections between coal mining and the health of people living in communities near those operations. We are working to refine our mapping processes and enable new types of analysis to help understand the environmental and public health consequences of mountaintop removal mining.

The process we used to create our annual maps of surface mining from 1985-2015, relies on the use of a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). NDVI essentially measures a ratio of reflected red and near-infrared light and is particularly useful for detecting changes in vegetation. When areas within the scope of our study experience a change from forest to bare earth, this registers as mineland. The analysis is available here: skytruthmtr.appspot.com

This NDVI image shows the Hobet 21 Coal Mine in West Virginia. Vegetated areas are visualized in white, while bare earth is seen as dark grey or black.

We are working with Dr. Matt Ross, an ecosystem scientist from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to improve our mining identification algorithm, and add the capacity to evaluate how landscapes affected by surface mining recover over time. This algorithm is an integral step in assessing the efficacy of the reclamation efforts undertaken by mine operators. We expect our mapping will allow researchers to conduct more robust studies on the long-term environmental and health impacts of surface mining, which in turn will help mining-impacted communities hold industry and government accountable for repairing the damage done to Appalachian landscapes, ecosystems and public health. We also hope the work will stimulate government investment as coal mining declines throughout the region, enabling a just transition to a new economy.

The following slider compares one of the new indexes we are incorporating into our work, a Normalized Difference Moisture Index (NDWI), with NDVI at the Hobet 21 Coal Mine. NDWI measures the relative amounts of moisture present in landscapes, densely vegetated areas have high NDMI values, while sparsely vegetated areas or bare earth have lower values. By incorporating new indices we are gaining a better understanding of how the land is affected by these operations. It is worth noting, therefore, the low amount of moisture present across the mine, even in those areas which appear to be recovering in the NDVI.