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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?

Aerial survey photos from the 2013 National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) show how drilling and fracking have altered the West Virginia landscape.

Half of West Virginians Live Within a Mile of an Active Well

According to a new study by Environmental Health Perspectives, 17.6 million Americans live within one mile of an active oil or gas well. West Virginia topped the list. Half of the state’s population resides within a mile of an active well.

Aerial survey photos from the 2013 National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) show how drilling and fracking have altered the West Virginia landscape.

Aerial survey photos (above & below) from the 2013 National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) show how drilling and fracking have altered the West Virginia landscape.

Aerial survey photos from the 2013 National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) show how drilling and fracking have altered the West Virginia landscape.

Studies have found links between public health outcomes and active oil and gas production.

Oil and gas development:

  • degrades the quality of air and water,
  • contaminates the soil,
  • increases exposure to noise and light pollution.

People who live within a mile of an active well have higher rates of health problems including:

  • heart-related illness,
  • neurological problems,
  • cancer,
  • asthma.

Living near an active well has also been associated with adverse health outcomes in babies including:

  • pre-term birth,
  • lower birth weight,
  • neural tube defects,
  • congenital heart defects.

In Everyone’s Backyard: Assessing Proximity of Fracking to Communities At-Risk in West Virginia’s Marcellus Shale

SkyTruth recently partnered with Downstream Strategies and San Francisco University on a related report, focused on West Virginia. The report concluded that Marcellus Shale gas production has become more common near places essential for everyday life in West Virginia, increasing the potential for human exposure to toxic chemicals.

“This report shines a light on the impacts of fracking on the health and well-being of West Virginians. It is a perfect example of why I founded SkyTruth,” said John Amos. “If people are aware of how these decisions impact their lives, they will be able to be part of the solution.”

Many Homes Are Too Close to Well Pads

According to the report, more than 7,000 homes were located less than one-half mile from well pads in 2014. While the Horizontal Well Control Act established a setback distance of 625 feet between the center of well pads and homes, many homes are located closer than this distance to well pads.

Well Pads Have Encroached on Schools

As fracking progressed in West Virginia, well pads have also encroached on schools. By 2014, seven schools had at least one well pad within one-half mile, and 36 schools had at least one well located within one mile.

More Well Pads Have Been Built Near Public Lands, Including Water Protection Areas and Healthcare Facilities

Well pads must be more than 1,000 feet from public drinking water intakes; however, there are no restrictions on the construction of well pads within drinking water protection areas upstream from intakes. In 2014, hundreds of well pads and impoundments were in these protection areas. Since 2007, more and more well pads and impoundments have been built in or near public lands and health care facilities.

A systematic, screening-level evaluation of the toxicity of chemicals self-reported by operators in West Virginia revealed several hazardous substances had been used to frack wells near schools and immediately upstream from surface public drinking water intakes.

New Setback Distances Needed

Unlike other states, West Virginia State Code does not require setbacks between Marcellus Shale development and several types of sensitive areas assessed in this report. Setback distances for schools, healthcare facilities, and public lands—and restrictions in zones of critical concern and zones of peripheral concern above drinking water intakes—would help protect vulnerable populations and recreational opportunities as fracking development continues.

“Now that this analysis is completed, it’s a good time for the Legislature to consider new setback distances from homes, schools, and other sensitive areas,” said Evan Hansen, President of Downstream Strategies.

This report was made possible by a Switzer Network Innovation Grant.

The hypothetical Mountaineer Pipeline Eastern Panhandle Expansion map. Base imagery provided by Google.

SkyTruth Map Shows Potential Path of Proposed Pipeline Expansion in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle

Mountaineer Gas Company has proposed building a pipeline through the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. Eastern Panhandle Protectors asked SkyTruth to produce a map showing the pathway the pipeline will take, based on documents from Mountaineer Gas Company and land easements they’ve purchased. Mountaineer included maps within their “petition to amend infrastructure and expansion program” covering the pipeline route across the Panhandle, but these are small-scale maps lacking in detail, with very broad-stroke yellow lines pointing directions for several miles. These maps do not show enough detail to be useful. For example, they don’t indicate which side of Route 9 or Interstate 81 the pipeline would follow (see map from Mountaineer Petition below).

Map from Mountaineer Petition to amend infrastructure and expansion program shows very general proposed route for new pipeline.

Map from Mountaineer Petition to amend infrastructure and expansion program shows very general proposed route for new pipeline.

The Project

Eastern Panhandle Protectors provided SkyTruth with addresses of easements purchased by Mountaineer and asked us to create a more detailed map that would be useful for public outreach. Members of Eastern Panhandle Protectors also spoke with property owners along the proposed path of the pipeline to find out if they had sold an easement to the gas company, or if they had been approached for an easement and were “holding out”. Property addresses (both holdouts and easements) were marked on Google Earth, and the general path of the pipeline began to take shape. However, street addresses and Google imagery were not enough information to delineate the proposed path, so we obtained a tax parcel map from the WV GIS Technical Center and used the data to visualize property boundaries (see below).

Teal polygons represent tax parcels the pipeline would possibly intersect. In Jefferson County, the pipeline follows Route 9, Route 51, and county Route 11.

Teal polygons represent tax parcels the pipeline would possibly intersect. In Jefferson County, the pipeline follows Route 9, Route 51, and county Route 11.

Methodology

We had to make some educated guesses to determine where the pipeline would go as it crossed each of these properties. Eastern Panhandle Protectors suggested the following assumptions: Pipeline companies generally do not want to

 

  • turn the pipeline at a sharp angle,
  • build on steep slopes, or,
  • build too close to homes or businesses.

 

They do want to take the shortest possible route.

Starting with the general pipeline path as defined by the properties shown in the map above, SkyTruth refined the hypothetical route by applying these guidelines.  

The hypothetical Mountaineer Pipeline Eastern Panhandle Expansion map. Base imagery provided by Google.

The hypothetical Mountaineer Pipeline Eastern Panhandle Expansion map. Base imagery provided by Google.

The hypothetical route shown in yellow on the map above is dashed to indicate our uncertainty about the exact path the pipeline will follow. Given the noted assumptions we had to make in delineating the most likely pipeline route, we can make no claims about the accuracy of this map. It is simply our best guess at where the pipeline could go, based on the imprecise and incomplete information the gas company and the state are making available to the public. It’s a shame better information is not being provided to the public.  

Gas Drilling Heating Up West Virginia

Although most of the recent natural gas drilling coverage has centered around the Marcellus Shale play in Pennsylvania, West Virginia has never been out of the loop when it comes to energy resource extraction.

Oil, natural gas and coal bed methane industries have quietly grown alongside the long-entrenched coal business in the state, but as production ramps up across the nation, West Virginia’s natural gas drilling is drawing increased attention.

(maps and more after the jump)

SkyTruth downloaded and analyzed data from West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection to create the maps below. Each show the extent and concentration of permits issued across the state between 2005 to 2011.  Note that a “permit” does not necessarily indicate that the well has been drilled, or fracking has taken place, but in the hot Marcellus Shale play we think it’s likely that action follows the permit approval more often than not, and quickly.

All oil and gas well drilling permits issued by watershed from 2005 to 2011

 

All hydraulic fracturing (fracking) permits issued by watershed from 2005 to 2011
So, what effects will the rising gas  industry have on the state, especially in highly permitted areas like the Middle West Fork River watershed?  Unlike coal, natural gas drilling, especially that employing hydraulic fracturing methods, is relatively unexplored regulatory and environmental territory.

Although the industry may be decreasing unemployment in some localities, some citizens are worried that in the haste to drill proper environmental regulations have not been implemented to account for the risks and impacts associated with the new technologies of horizontal drilling and fracking.

Here in West Virginia concerned citizens have pushed the legislature to review the issue and the Senate Judiciary Committee just this week forwarded along a controversial set of rules dictating Marcellus regulation, but to what end? With strong industry players touting economic benefits and pushing against costly regulations, it will be interesting to see where West Virginia falls in the battle between profit and oversight.

“Fracking Pit” Spill Reported near Salem, West Virginia

Yesterday we received this report from our SkyTruth Alerts System about a spill of “fracking fluid” from a pit located about a mile and a half to the north east of Salem, WV in Harrison county.  Note that we placed the original report in the town of Salem because we had to approximate the location since no specific latitude and longitude were given in the report.  The actual location according to gas drilling permit data from the West Virginia DEP appears to be about a mile up Cherry Camp Run heading north from Rt. 50:

Approximate location of recent report of “fracking fluid” spill near Salem, WV

Here’s what we know:

The operator of the site is Antero Resources Bluestone, LLC which sits on property reportedly owned by Mary Post and Robert Haught. Several drilling permits on this property were issued over the past few years, and several permits were issued and then canceled. The most recent permit we see in the WV Permit Data site is API number 033-05540 which was approved on 4/19/2011. The prior permits for this farm were signed by Hall Drilling. So far, we haven’t found any actual ‘permit commenced’ filing for any permit issued on this property (we believe that a “permit commenced” filing indicates the start of drilling activity). In the most recent permit, the current operator is listed as Antero Resources Bluestone LLC.   A little online research reveals that Bluestone LLC was acquired by Antero Resources last December. According to that press release: “Sam Ross, Mike Hall and the Bluestone team have created quite a valuable asset in the play and we congratulate them on their success.” In the WV Permit Data search, we found that Michael Hall was the contact person for Hall Drilling, LLC. So we conclude that Hall became Bluestone LLC, and was then taken over by Antero Resources.

We did a little more digging and found this Youtube video which was uploaded on March 6, 2011 and appears to show the same site:

Then we found another Youtube clip, uploaded just two months later on May 21, 2011 showing what appears to be the same drilling site and including the API number of the most recent permit for that site, which is probably posted on a sign near the road:

We’ll let the videos speak for themselves, and only point out that the surface of the water is awfully close to the top of the berm and there is not much clearance there to prevent the contents of the pond from overflowing into the creek.  We have no idea what’s in the pond though, and no way to verify that these videos do indeed show the same location as the NRC report.