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.

What We Can See, In Heat Maps

Here at SkyTruth, we depend on our friends at the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for their support in providing access to data and images from their fleets of government-operated satellites.

The Sentinel missions are pairs of satellites that are part of the Copernicus program at ESA. Sentinel 1 is of particular use to us for offshore oil pollution monitoring as the radar sensor it carries can penetrate cloud cover and highlight oil slicks against water. The optical-infrared imaging system on Sentinel 2 covers a wide range of spectral bands that we can process to create a variety of true-color and false-color images, which we use to study environmental issues like drilling, mining, and deforestation.

Many folks assume these Earth-Observing satellites are continually collecting images as they orbit overhead, but for most systems that is not the case. Much of the time the sensors are turned off to save power, to conserve onboard storage, because of limited communications bandwidth, or because the operators just aren’t interested in covering large areas where there isn’t much demand for imagery (far out at sea, or over vast deserts, for example).  We thought it would be interesting and useful to analyze the archives of imagery collected by these systems, and map where they’ve taken images, to get a sense for how frequently they are covering various parts of the planet.   

The heat maps below show the locations of all the images collected by Sentinels 1 and 2 since they became active, and for a recent calendar year (2016). As you can see, the distribution of images is not at all uniform, with a strong bias toward covering Europe and the Arctic. Most of the ocean doesn’t get imaged at all. Please note that “scene count” means the image count at any particular point on the map.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) manages the images produced by NASA-built satellites in the Landsat program which has been imaging the Earth since 1972, much longer than any other civilian satellite imaging program. Currently, only Landsat 7 and 8 are in operation (with Landsat 9 planned for 2020) and, similar to Sentinel 2; they provide us with instrumental data collected across a range of spectral wavelengths which we can process into color images.
Like the Sentinel satellites, the Landsat archives have sparse coverage in the ocean. While there is some pro-northern hemisphere bias, the operators of Landsat 8 have made a concerted effort to distribute the collection of imagery more evenly over all of the Earth’s land masses, with the exception of a few large areas that are chronically impaired by heavy haze, dust, smog, or cloud cover. Can you pick them out?