Taylor Energy Oil Spill: This Is How Change Happens

Recently a front-page article ran in The Washington Post, describing the ongoing, 14-year-long leak of crude oil from hurricane-damaged wells at the former location of an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, operated by a company called Taylor Energy.  The article stated that — based on the latest scientific estimates of the leak rate — the Taylor spill was about to surpass BP’s disastrous 2010 blowout in the Gulf, becoming the world’s worst oil spill.  News outlets around the world pounced on this headline, shining a global spotlight on this egregious chronic leak. Within weeks the US Coast Guard announced they had finally ordered Taylor Energy to fix the leak or face a daily $40,000 fine.  The team at SkyTruth was thrilled when we heard the news: when Taylor finally fixes the leak, this will be a great result for the environment in the Gulf and will send a strong message to the offshore oil industry that we won’t let them walk away from their messes.  And, this is the vindication of eight years of persistent, dogged work by SkyTruth and our partners.

Taylor Energy - Washington Post

Source: The Washington Post, October 21, 2018

How did we achieve this significant victory for the environment and the people of the Gulf Coast?  We….  

  • Built partnerships.  We teamed up with Southwings and Waterkeeper Alliance to form the Gulf Monitoring Consortium.  Gulf-area citizens groups, notably the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Gulf Restoration Network soon joined, giving us the ability to monitor, investigate, and systematically document the Taylor spill from space, from small aircraft, and on the water.  Alerted by our work, researchers from Florida State University conducted their own independent sampling and measurements, bringing a higher level of scientific expertise to the growing public scrutiny of this continuous pollution event.  
  • Worked with journalists to help them understand the significance of this unchecked spill.  Our methodical, transparent, and conservative analysis helped us build a reputation as being a trustworthy source of credible information.  We developed long-running relationships with journalists, particularly Mike Kunzelman at The Associated Press.  Reporters reached out for our comments and expert insights whenever new information or developments in the Taylor saga came to light.  These relationships resulted in dozens of articles in major media markets over the years, helping to maintain public attention and interest, and a steady drumbeat of public criticism.

And finally, an hour-long interview with Washington Post reporter Darryl Fears resulted in an article that triggered Coast Guard action.  Now, of course, we will continue to monitor the Taylor Energy leak to ensure that effective action is taken.  And we’ll let the world know what we see.

This is what it takes, to make positive change happen for the environment.  We’d like to thank the foundations and individuals who have donated to SkyTruth, making it possible for us to dedicate the time and resources to sustaining this watchdog effort over so many years.  We couldn’t have done it without you.

Please help us keep it going.  Donate to SkyTruth today!

Big Changes Coming to SkyTruth Alerts

For the last year or so we’ve been working to revamp SkyTruth Alerts, an app we built for ourselves in 2011, and then opened up to the public a year later. The Alerts lets you see environmental incidents and notifications on a map as they are reported, and allows subscribers to sign up to receive email notifications about reported environmental incidents in areas they care about (aka “Areas of Interest” or AOIs). Technology has made a few leaps since then, so it was time for an overhaul. We’ve added some new features too. We’re excited about the changes, and we hope you will be too.  

What’s Changed?

In a lot of ways, the new SkyTruth Alerts app works the way it always has: anyone can view the map and see the latest reported alerts for a particular area. These notifications come from federal and state websites that we have “scraped” to obtain the reports. The largest source of data is the nationwide oil and hazardous materials spill reports collected by the National Response Center (i.e., NRC Reports). Anyone can sign up to receive email notifications about incidents in their AOIs.

New and Restored Sources of Alerts

As part of the Alerts revamp, we’ve restored and/or added the following sources of alerts:

  • West Virginia oil & gas drilling permits –  restored
  • Colorado oil & gas drilling permits – new
  • Florida Pollution Reports – new

Account Management

We’ve also added account management so you can update your AOIs or change your email address more easily. Signing up for an account will also let you take advantage of new tools we’ll be rolling out in the coming months (we’ll keep you posted after the launch).

New Look!

This is what SkyTruth Alerts looks like right now:

This is what you’ll see when you first open the revamped SkyTruth Alerts (subject to some possible changes over the next few weeks, as we respond to feedback and suggestions from our alpha testers):

New Features!

Here are a few of the new features we’ve added:

New Ways to Create AOIs

Right now, SkyTruth Alerts lets you create AOIs that are a square or rectangle, but that’s not always the ideal shape. In the new version, we’ve added some tools that give you a little more control: you can draw a polygon, take a “snapshot” your current map view, or select a state or county boundary from a list of pre-defined AOIs):

After you create an AOI, you can edit your AOI (or delete it and start again) before giving it a name and saving it to your My Areas list.

Filter Out the Noise

We’ve added several ways to filter what you see in Alerts, so that you can focus on what’s important to you. SkyTruth Alerts shows you the 100 most-recent incidents in your map view (double what’s shown in the current version), so filtering has the added benefit of showing you more of the types of alerts you want to see. You can filter alerts by:

Date Range

Type of Alert

Base Layers

Select from a couple of different map backdrops (“base layers”) so you can focus on what’s important to you. Below is a screenshot of SkyTruth Alerts using the “Minimal” base layer.

Alerts Within AOI Only

This can be useful if there are a lot of alerts in the surrounding area that are more recent than the alerts within your AOI.  

In the image below, there are only a few alerts are shown in the West Virginia AOI:

However, once alerts are limited to within the AOI, the picture changes:

New Ways to View Alerts Markers

In some places, there are many, many alerts in the same location. This can make it hard to move around the map because you end up clicking or tapping an alert marker when you wanted move around in the map view. It can also be hard to “grab” a particular alert marker from a stack of them.

In the first screenshot, clustering is turned on, making it easier to move around the map. Click on a cluster marker to zoom in on that area and see more alerts.

Once you’ve zeroed in on your area of interest, it can still be hard to see the forest for the trees in some locations. In the next image, clustering is turned off. You can see that there are a lot of alerts in this area, but how many exactly?

The image below shows the same area as the one above. If you click on one of the alert markers, it will “explode,” showing you all of the alerts in that location. Click on any of the exploded markers to view the report.

So when’s the Launch?

We’re getting ready to begin alpha testing in in mid-November. Lots of our current subscribers have volunteered to be testers and will be helping us put the finishing touches on the app. A big thank you to all of you who are helping us with that! Testing will last four weeks, and during that time we’ll be making continuous updates based on feedback we receive. We expect to go live with the new version by the end of the year.

SkyTruth Founder John Amos to Speak in Shepherdstown

Did you see the recent front page article in the Washington Post that featured SkyTruth’s work tracking a 14-year oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Why is Shepherdstown’s own SkyTruth featured so often in the international press? Come find out!

Founder John Amos and key staff members Christian Thomas and Ry Covington will talk about our work tracking pollution, mapping flaring and fracking, revealing the true scope of devastation from mountaintop mining and illuminating commercial overfishing. There’ll be a Q&A session followed by some light refreshments. For those of you who know us already, please join us with a friend you think might be interested to learn more about this West Virginia-based nonprofit that has global impacts.

SkyTruth: sharing the view from space to inspire people to protect the environment. If you can see it, you can change it!

Event details:

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018 5:30pm-7pm
Shepherd University
Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education
213 N King Street
Shepherdstown, West Virginia 25443

Rockwool — Industry comes to SkyTruth’s backyard

Rockwool, a multinational corporation based in Denmark, is planning to build a new insulation manufacturing plant in Jefferson County, West Virginia, 5 miles from SkyTruth’s front door. If built, the plant will feature a 21-story (~210 feet) tall smokestack that will spew chemicals including formaldehyde, sulfuric acid mist, and hydrochloric acid.  For the full list of pollutants they plan to emit, see page 428 of the Roxul application submitted to the WV DEP on Nov 20, 2017.

This PlanetScope image shows the locations of the four schools located within three miles of the Rockwool site, along with the route of the proposed Mountaineer Pipeline.

The concerns over this predicted air pollution from the Rockwool facility are compounded by its location. Four schools are within 3 miles of the site (the site here is defined by the latitude and longitude provided by this WV DEP report, see page 1): two elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. The closest of these is North Jefferson Elementary School, which is located a mere 3,400 feet from the Rockwool site as shown in the WV DEP permit application.

This wind rose (generated by The Global Wind Atlas) shows the prevailing wind directions for the area near the Rockwool facility.

This wind rose (generated using data from a weather station at the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport) shows the prevailing wind directions for the area near the Rockwool facility from 2012-2016. This wind rose was included in the Air Modeling Report submitted by Roxul to the WV DEP (see page 30).

To read these wind roses, the outer edge indicates the direction from which the wind blows. With the dominant wind direction from the northwest, all four of the schools will typically be downwind from this facility, frequently exposing students, faculty and staff to the pollutants Rockwool says they plan to emit.

Last August, SkyTruth worked with the Eastern Panhandle Protectors to produce a map of the Mountaineer Pipeline Eastern Panhandle Expansion.  What’s the connection? As it turns out, natural gas delivered via this pipeline will feed the Rockwool plant.  One thing leads to another….

This PlanetScope image, collected on August 6, 2018, of the Rockwool site shows recent construction activity. Less than a mile from the site is the North Jefferson Elementary School.

The concerned citizens of Jefferson County are making their voices heard, and are actively opposing the final permits and approvals needed for construction of the Rockwool facility. As a nonprofit that makes its home in West Virginia, SkyTruth is pleased to offer access to our maps (including an interactive web map, which will be updated as we learn more), to the citizens of Jefferson County, in the hopes that these resources will help raise awareness and engage the community on this potentially serious public health issue.

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?

Monitoring Update: Oil Rocks In The Caspian Sea

The Oil Rocks (Neft Daşları)  is a massive offshore oil complex in the Caspian Sea. The complex was constructed in the late 1940’s by the Soviet Union and has been producing oil consistently since 1951. The area around the Oil Rocks has experienced catastrophe in the past, when a fire at a nearby platform was responsible for the death of 32 workers and a particularly nasty oil spill in December 2015.

As part of SkyTruth’s Watchdog program, we keep an eye on locations such as this. Over the past 2 months, we estimate that over 380,000 gallons of oil have leaked into the Caspian Sea, based on our assumption that the slicks we are observing are 1 micron (1/1000th of a millimeter) thick.

Above: The European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 radar satellite captured this image on December 9th revealing a 306 square kilometer oil slick surrounding the Oil Rocks complex.

Above: Sentinel 1 collected this image of the Oil Rocks with a much smaller oil slick (23 square kilometers) on December 21, 2017.

Wind speeds in the Caspian Sea were as strong as 35 knots toward the south on December 21st and may have dispersed an additional volume of oil on the water’s surface.

Above: Sentinel 1 imagery from January 7, 2018 reveals the Oil Rocks leaking oil. The slicks cover a total area of 34 square kilometers.

Wind speeds were very low (between 0-15 knots) on January 7th heading southward, allowing the oil to form slicks around the complex.

And on January 13th, they were between 20-30 knots also heading southward. Similar to the image from December 21st, the high wind speeds may have contributed to dispersing the oil.

Above: The most recent Sentinel 1 image collected on January 19, 2018 reveals a massive oil slick emanating from the Oil Rocks complex, covering an area of 1094 square kilometers and containing at least 288,940 gallons of oil.

For context, 50,000 gallons of oil leaked from the SOCAR#10 platform during a fatal fire in 2015 mentioned above. And this massive Azerbaijani complex has a consistent leaky history on satellite imagery. Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan, the five countries surrounding the Caspian, all have efforts to tap into the Sea’s 44 billion barrel reserve. But this most recent satellite image from January 19th suggests a troubling future for the environment of the Caspian Sea.