New Intern Matthew Ibarra Shifts from Aerospace Engineering to Protecting the Planet from Space

Matthew thought he wanted to be an aerospace engineer when he started college. Then he learned more about environmental damage to the planet.

Hello There!

My name is Matthew Ibarra and I am a new intern at SkyTruth. I am currently a student attending West Virginia University (WVU). Originally I came to WVU to study mechanical and aerospace engineering. I have always been passionate about math and science and so naturally I believed engineering would be a perfect fit for me. I was a part of my robotics team in high school and I believed this would be something I could do forever. 

However, as my time at WVU went on I became much less interested in engineering and I decided that I wanted to study something else. Through my engineering classes I inadvertently learned more about energy and from there about renewable energy sources. I developed a passion for renewables and I decided I wanted to shift my focus of study and work on environmental challenges. I have always felt there is a lot more bad news than good news in the world and I kept hearing about problems such as massive deforestation in the Amazon, pollution of the planet and the oceans — and those were just the tip of the melting iceberg. I wanted to do something that would leave a lasting impact. All of these factors pushed me to change my major to Environmental and Energy Resource Management. And it was the best decision I have ever made. 

Matthew played saxaphone for the WVU marching band and currently plays clarinet in the WVU Concert Band and saxophone in the WVU pep band. Photo by Roger Sealey.

My best friend Amanda’s mother Teri works at SkyTruth as our office administrator, which was very serendipitous for me. Amanda told me about SkyTruth and I was excited to learn how SkyTruth gathers environmental data and conducts research using satellite imagery. I was intrigued because it seemed like SkyTruth worked in all the areas I was passionate about: the environment, technology, and research. I looked into some of SkyTruth’s current and past projects and the ones that excited me the most include FrackFinder, which helps keep track of the environmental impacts of fracking for natural gas. I was also excited about SkyTruth’s interactive maps that help track the removal of mountaintops from coal mining. SkyTruth works on many other projects that I knew that I wanted to be a part of as well. An internship at SkyTruth was the perfect way for me to not only help work on projects I cared about, but also to learn more about what I am interested in.

As an intern I am currently working to monitor the South East Asia region for bilge dumps. Bilge dumps are illegal practices by vessels that attempt to bypass pollution control and dump their oily ballast and waste water at sea. I am collecting useful data that will contribute to a machine learning program that can automatically detect bilge dumps from satellite images around the world. I am also working to update FrackFinder to include data from 2016 and create an interactive map that can easily display information such as natural gas well pad locations in West Virginia, and when they were drilled, to show how natural gas fracking has impacted West Virginia over time.

I am passionate about sustainability and hope to make this central to my career. Sustainability is the notion of living your life in such a way that you leave resources for the people who come after you. After my time here at SkyTruth I hope to go into government work. I would like to work for the Department of Energy in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Fossil fuels will eventually run out and a transition to renewables will help current climate and environmental issues. I feel that it is important to find solutions now and transition our power needs to something that is more sustainable while we are still able to do so. 

Matthew admires Blackwater Canyon in West Virginia. Photo by Matthew Ibarra.

I believe SkyTruth is important in achieving my goals because I am gaining valuable skills and knowledge that I know will help me in the future. I love working with Geographic Information System programs (GIS). GIS is essentially using computers to analyze physical features of the Earth such as measuring forest density or tracking changing temperatures; it has almost endless applications.  I am learning to work with Google Earth Engine which is essentially a super powerful and intuitive way to work in GIS. Earth Engine requires me to be able to code in the programming language JavaScript and so I’m learning that skill as well. These are skills that will be forever relevant in the future and I am excited to deepen my understanding of them.

When I started college five years ago I never thought that I would end up where I am today. I spent so many sleepless nights trying to finish my physics homework and study my chemistry notes. I never thought that I would want to give all that up to work in something completely different, but I am thankful I did. I am eager to be learning something new every day at SkyTruth and I am thankful to everyone who helped me get to where I am today. I am excited to continue my internship here and keep learning more about what’s important to me.

Matthew is a hockey fan and celebrated the DC Capitals’ Stanley Cup victory in 2018. Photo by Photos Beyond DC.

 

 

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!

Christian Thomas Works to Protect his Home State of West Virginia

Christian had a choice: The Peace Corps or SkyTruth.  He chose SkyTruth.

“It was no contest,” Christian Thomas told me when I asked him about choosing between the Peace Corps and SkyTruth. Born and raised near Shepherdstown, West Virginia, Christian first met SkyTruth President John Amos at the Shepherdstown Farmer’s Market when he was a student at West Virginia University (WVU). Every Sunday morning in the summertime, Christian helped a local farmer tend a stand that sold meat and eggs to community foodies. When John learned that Christian was studying geography and environmental geoscience, he encouraged Christian to send his resume to SkyTruth.

But it took Christian a while to get around to that. First, he graduated from WVU in the spring of 2014. Then he worked as a cook at Camp Arcadia on the shores of Lake Michigan; a favorite family summer destination when he was a kid. After returning to West Virginia in the winter of 2015, he began volunteering at SkyTruth and soon became a part-time employee.

Then the offer from the Peace Corps arrived, giving him the opportunity to work in Ethiopia for two years as an Environmental Extension and Forestry Volunteer. Offer in hand, Christian asked John if SkyTruth would be interested in hiring him full time. Sure enough, SkyTruth made him a counteroffer. “[SkyTruth] was a direct application of everything I had studied,” Christian told me. And one of his first projects at SkyTruth focused on mining: “things I could see and have impact on,” he said. He jumped at the chance for a full-time position.

“One of my favorite things about SkyTruth is creating data that never existed before,” he said. He pointed to how much he values having his data used by researchers, universities, and other partners to generate scientifically credible results that can influence policy, thereby having real impact on the ground.

Christian leads SkyTruth’s work on mountaintop mining; a common practice in Appalachia in which mining companies blow up entire mountaintops to get at the coal hidden inside, then dump the soil, rock, and other material into valleys and streams below. This practice destroys native ecosystems and can poison the water supply. “West Virginia is beautiful. By not destroying the landscape there are more benefits for the state,” Christian believes.

SkyTruth’s Central Appalachia Surface Mining dataset shows where mining has occurred across 74 counties in the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia since 1985. University researchers have used SkyTruth’s data to examine health impacts on nearby communities and conservation groups such as Appalachian Voices have used this data to mobilize activists. Most recently, scientists at West Virginia University published a study in the peer reviewed International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that relied on this dataset to document an association between mining and dementia-related deaths.

“There aren’t a lot of [job] opportunities for West Virginians and what there is often hurts them,” according to Christian. As coal production declines, Christian believes there are better ways for West Virginians to make a living that don’t harm people’s health. “[The beauty] is still there, but we don’t want to lose more,” he said. Some mines are massive, he pointed out — hundreds of acres. “You can see them march across the landscape in the course of a decade.” Christian has seen this firsthand by analyzing countless satellite images. One of the first steps in stopping the process, he believes, is showing how destructive these mines are.

Christian mountain biking in Oregon. Photo by Joe Milbrath.

His next step is looking at reclaimed mine sites. “You can never put the mountains back,” he said. Once mined, the Mountain State’s mountains are gone forever. But he hopes that some previously mined sites can support a native Appalachian forest again if they are reclaimed effectively. “We’re going to quantify how well the land can recover, or has recovered,” he said. This is critical information for taxpayers: Under federal law, mining companies are required to reclaim sites after they are done mining, plus set aside money in bonds to cover reclamation costs. If the mining company convinces state inspectors that recovery is sufficient, they get their bond money back. But if bonds are released for poorly reclaimed sites, communities and taxpayers can be left with denuded landscapes and large restoration bills. Christian wants to know whether real restoration is actually occurring.

His other project work at SkyTruth includes mapping offshore infrastructure in the oceans to help SkyTruth monitor ocean pollution and its partner Global Fishing Watch track fishing vessels. In November 2019, the journal Remote Sensing of Environment published his ocean infrastructure work with coauthors Brian Wong and Patrick Halprin from Duke University’s Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab.

When not saving his beloved West Virginia (or the world’s oceans), Christian spends time outdoors with his partner Amy Moore, whom he’s known since childhood. Amy is lead instructor at the Potomac Valley Audubon Society’s Cool Spring Preserve, and is what Christian calls “an extremely adventurous person,” big into rock climbing, cross country skiing, and white water kayaking. Christian prefers mountain biking, board games, and fly fishing – a family tradition handed down from his mother. But they both enjoy hiking at the nature preserve and, with their shared interest in conservation, make a difference every day in West Virginia.

Christian and Amy at Temperance River State Park, MN . Photo by an anonymous passerby.

Updated 12/5/19.

Fracking in Suburbia

What do you do when big oil moves in next door?

Karen Speed’s new house in Windsor, Colorado was supposed to be a peaceful retirement home. Now she plans to move.

Patricia Nelson wanted her son Diego to grow up the way she did – far from the petrochemical plants surrounding their home in Louisiana. So she moved back to Greeley, Colorado to be close to her family. Then she learned about the drilling behind Diego’s school.

Shirley Smithson had enjoyed her quiet community for years, riding her horse through her neighbor’s pastures, watching the wildlife, and teaching at local schools. When she learned that oil wells would be popping up down the street, she was in denial at first, she says. Then she took action. 

These women shared their stories with a group of journalists and others attending the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) 2019 meeting in Fort Collins, Colorado last month. Fort Collins sits right next to Weld County – the most prolific county in Colorado for oil and gas production and among the most prolific in the entire United States. There, hydraulic fracturing (mostly for oil) has boomed, along with a population surge that is gobbling up farmland and converting open space into subdivisions. Often, these two very different types of development occur side-by-side. 

“We moved [into our house] in September, 2014,” Karen Speed told me, “and by the third week of January 2015, boy, I regretted building that house.” That was the week she learned that Great Western Oil and Gas Company, LLC, was proposing to put a well pad between two neighborhoods; and one of those neighborhoods was hers. When residents complained, she said, the company moved the site across a road and into a valley. “Which really isn’t the right answer,” Speed said. “Not in my backyard attitude? No – not in my town.” The well pad now sits next to the Poudre River and a bike path according to Speed. “People I know no longer ride there. They get sick,” she said. “One guy I know gets nosebleeds. He had asthma already and gets asthma attacks after riding.“

Well pads in neighborhoods are not uncommon throughout parts of Colorado’s Front Range. Weld County alone has an estimated 21,800 well pads and produces roughly 88% of Colorado’s oil. SkyTruth’s Flaring Map reveals a high concentration of flaring sites occurring in that region. This industrial activity occurs within residential areas and farmland despite the fact that people living near fracking sites in Colorado complain of bloody noses, migraines, sore throats, difficulty breathing, and other health problems according to Nathalie Eddy, a Field Advocate with the nonprofit environmental group Earthworks.   

Image 1. ImageMethane flaring locations from oil and gas wells in Weld County, CO. Image from SkyTruth’s Annual Flaring Volume Estimates from Earth Observation Group.

 

And then there was the explosion. Two years after Speed moved into her new home, on December 22, 2017, her house shook when a tank exploded at Extraction Energy’s Stromberger well pad four miles away. “When it exploded it really rocked the town,” she said. More than a dozen fire departments responded to the 30-foot high flames. “It went from 8:45 in the evening until the following morning before they could recover and get out of that space,” Speed recalls. According to a High Country News story, workers raced around shutting down operations throughout the site — 19 wells in all plus pipelines, tanks, trucks and other industrial infrastructure  — to prevent oil, gas, and other chemicals from triggering more explosions. Roughly 350 houses sat within one mile of the site and many more were within shaking range. One worker was injured. Dispatcher recordings released by High Country News reveal how dangerous the situation was, and how local fire departments were unprepared for an industrial fire of that magnitude.

That explosion occurred the very night Patricia Nelson returned home from a long day at the District Court in Denver. Nelson has been part of a coalition of public interest groups – including the NAACP, the Sierra Club, Wall of Women, and Weld Air and Water – that sued the Colorado agency responsible for overseeing oil and gas production in the state, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, for approving permits for 24 wells behind her son Diego’s school.  The company that would drill those wells was the same company overseeing the site that exploded – Extraction Energy.

Under Colorado law, oil and gas wells can be as close as 500 feet from a home and 1,000 feet from a school. Extraction’s new wells would be just over that limit and less than 1,000 feet from the school’s playing fields. Although the court hadn’t yet ruled, the company began construction on the site a few months later, in February 2018, and began drilling the wells that May. Ultimately, the District Court and the Appeals Court upheld the permits. Oil wells now tower over the Bella Romero Academy’s playing fields and the surrounding neighborhood of modest homes.

Smithson once taught at Bella Romero and worries about the kids. “When you have noise pollution and light pollution and dust and methane and all the things that come with having oil and gas production going on, kids are impacted physically. Their lungs aren’t developed…their immune systems aren’t totally developed and they are picking all this up,” she said. She has tried to mobilize the community but has been frustrated by the intimidation many parents feel. “This is a community without a voice,” she said. Bella Romero Academy is roughly 87% students of color, most of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. “There are kids from Somalia, from war camps” attending the school, Smithson said. “They have trauma from the top of their head to their toes. They’re not going to speak up.” Both Smithson and Nelson pointed out that immigrants – whether from Somalia or Latin America – are unlikely to speak out because they fear retaliation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Moreover, some parents work for energy companies. They fear losing their jobs if they oppose an oil site near the school.

 In fact, according to Smithson, Nelson, and Speed, Extraction Energy came to Bella Romero because it expected few parents would resist: The company originally proposed these wells adjacent to the wealthier Frontier Academy on the other side of town, where the student body is 77% white. Extraction moved the wells to Bella Romero after an outcry from the school community. This kind of environmental injustice isn’t unusual, and it generated attention from major media outlets, including the New York Times and Mother Jones. You can see how close the wells are to the school in this clip from The Daily Show (and on the SkyTruth image below).

Image 2: Extraction Energy’s facking site near Bella Romero Academy in Greeley, CO. Image by SkyTruth.

 

SkyTruth has resources to help residents, activists, and researchers address potential threats from residential fracking. SkyTruth’s Flaring Map covers the entire world, and users can see flaring hotspots in their region – where energy companies burn off excess methane from drilling operations into the air — and document trends in the volume of methane burned over time. The SkyTruth Alerts system can keep people in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Pennsylvania, West Virginia up-to-date on new oil and gas permits, and new activities in their area of interest.  

 We know that residents and researchers using these kinds of tracking tools can have major impact. Johns Hopkins University researchers used SkyTruth’s FrackTracker program, which identified the location of fracking sites in Pennsylvania, to document health impacts in nearby communities. Those impacts included increases in premature births and asthma attacks. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan cited this information in his decision to ban fracking in his state. Those interested in collaborating with SkyTruth on similar projects should contact us.

Photo 1. Pump jacks at Extraction Energy’s Rubyanna site in Greeley, CO. Photo by Amy Mathews.

 

Although Colorado activists have had limited success so far, this past year did bring some positive changes. The Colorado General Assembly passed SB 181, which directs the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to prioritize public health, safety, welfare, and the environment over oil and gas development. The new law also allows local governments to regulate the siting of oil and gas facilities in their communities and set stricter standards for oil and gas development than the state. Colorado agencies are still developing regulations to implement these new provisions.

 Improvements in technology could help as well.  The same day the SEJ crew met with concerned residents, a spokeswoman with SRC Energy explained the state of the art operations at their Golden Eagle pad in Eaton, Colorado. That technology is designed to mitigate impacts on the surrounding community and includes a 40-foot high sound wall, a water tank on site to pump water from a nearby farm (which reduces truck traffic), and electric pumps (to reduce emissions), among other features. Still, the fear of being surrounded by industrial sites remains for many residents.

Photo 2. SRC Energy’s Golden Eagle Pad, Eaton, CO. Photo by Amy Mathews.

 

In the meantime, Karen Speed is starting to look elsewhere for a new home. Shirley Smithson has decided she’s not going to let an oil company ruin her life. And Patricia Nelson will continue to fight for her family.

 “I think about moving all the time,” Nelson told the group of journalists, her voice cracking.  “But my whole family lives here and I don’t feel I can leave them behind… My sister has five children and drives to Denver for work every day…. I have cousins with kids at this school and family friends. Really, moving isn’t an option for me.”

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.