Friday, November 20, 2015

Threat Remains for Communities Downstream of Samarco Iron Mine

As we reported last week, a catastrophic mine mine failure at the Samarco iron mine in southern Brazil killed 11 and left 12 missing, buried the town of Bento Rodrigues under millions of cubic meters of toxic mine waste, and left thousands across the region without clean water. Troublingly, the threat of further flooding persists as heavy rains move in and mine operators BHB Billiton and Vale SA scramble to shore up the remaining impoundments.

DigitalGlobe and Google Earth have acquired high resolution imagery of the aftermath, and there are several issues of which mine workers, downstream residents, and emergency responders need to be mindful. First of all, the Santarem impoundment immediately downstream from the failed dam did not break in the initial deluge, though it could very well have been damaged by the 40 million cubic meters of water and mine waste that poured down from Fundao. In the image below you can see that Santarem Dam is still intact, evidenced by visible spillway, but we don't know whether or not the dam's structural integrity has been compromised by stress and erosion. 

Image Credit: DigitalGlobe/Google Earth Outreach

To the southwest of the failed Fundao dam is the Germano Dam, Samarco's oldest and largest tailings impoundment. Reportedly this dam is drier and more stable than Santarem and Fundao, but all told the mine operator is mobilizing 500,000 cubic meters of rock to shore up both remaining dams. Reuters reports the repairs could take from 45 to 90 days, meanwhile the regional weather forecasts call for thunderstorms for the next 10 days. Below is the surviving Germano Dam (bottom left) and the failed Fundao Dam (center).
  Image Credit: DigitalGlobe/Google Earth Outreach 

The devastation is not just local, it extends far downstream. At the far eastern edge of DigitalGlobe's recent acquisition, 40 km away as-the-crow-flies, a small farm/compound was partially wiped out by the flood of toxic red mud. You can see a bridge wiped out, the floodplain inundated, and multiple structures erased by the force of the flash flood. 
Image Credit: DigitalGlobe/Google Earth Outreach

To put this disaster in perspective, current estimates put the volume of the flood so far at 40 million cubic meters of mud, debris, and toxic waste. That makes this spill 2.6x larger than the infamous Johnstown Flood which killed over 2,200 in Pennsylvania back in 1889. 

We urge everyone living and working in the area and downstream to exercise extreme caution. The company reports they are monitoring the surviving dams with "radar, lasers, and drones," but as the last image shows, the impact of another spill could be deadly even miles away from Bento Rodrigues. 

To view the imagery yourself in Google Earth, download this KML from Google Earth Outreach and DigitalGlobe. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

[Updated] Satellites Reveal Extent of Samarco Mine Disaster in Brazil

[Updated on Nov. 16 with additional satellite images]
On Thursday, Nov. 5 in the State of Minas Gerais, Brazil, two mine waste impoundments at the Samarco iron mine failed, burying the nearby town of Bento Rodrigues and sending 62 million cubic meters of toxic sludge downstream – impacting villages and rivers up to 400 kilometers away. So far the death toll is currently at nine, with 19 missing and 80% of the buildings in Bento Rodrigues destroyed. The mine, operated jointly by BHP/Billington and Vale SA, had increased output by 37% over the past year in spite of warnings from an independent report that the dam had design flaws that could lead to just such a failure.

Image: Christophe Simon AFP/Getty Images

Digital Globe, a commercial satellite image provider, has acquired imagery of the aftermath, which is currently being analyzed by volunteers at the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team (HOT). If you are familiar with Open Street Map, you can give them a hand. Below we have pulled together some of the before-and-after visualizations put together by regional data transparency and open mapping group– Codigo Urbano
 Above is a broad view of one of the failed impoundments and the former town of Bento Rodrigues, population ~600. Below is a closer view of a part of the town that was buried under the toxic sludge. 
  Finally, on the Landsat 8 imagery we've complied below, you can see just how far downstream the impacts go – turning the river banks orange. High levels of toxicity have been detected in water samples taken 400 kilometers downstream.

For reference, here is an annotated version of the "after" image.

Additionally, a Pleiades satellite operated by Airbus collected the following hi-resolution imagery of the disaster area. 

See more at –

And to compare Landsat imagery, side-by-side and close-up, click the image below. 

A little more than a year ago we saw a similar disaster unfold at the Mt. Polley Gold Mine in Canada. Yet, every new mine proposal (like the Pebble Mine, currently on hold but proposed for the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska) assures us that modern technology and responsible mining practices will make these disasters a thing of the past. If that's the case, why are we having déjà vu all over again? 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Freaky Fracking – Mapping How Wellpads are Carving Up Ohio

We don't usually do seasonally-themed maps, but this map tracing the footprint of wellpads in Ohio's Marcellus and Utica Shales just happens to work best with the colors associated with All Hallows Eve. Over the past year our FrackFinders and partners at Walsh University have helped us map shale drilling in eastern Ohio. Below you can see the total area of area of wellpads displayed using scaled "bubbles" which show the size of the wellpads relative to each other. This top-level view helps you see where drilling is the densest, and locate the largest and smallest wellpads. 

If you zoom in closer, you will see the actual outline of individual wellpads to scale. In this map there are 320 sites, all traced out by students at Walsh University participating in our FrackFinder collaborative image analysis projects. The median area of these wellpads is 13,787 square meters, or 3.4 acres. If you recall, we recently used this number to help visualize similar drilling in western Pennsylvania

The largest pad was 17 acres and the smallest pad was 0.6, and all told we found 1,100 acres of Ohio fields and forest converted to gravel wellpads. The total impact of drilling extends beyond just the wellpads we mapped in this phase of the project, so in future we will be working to repeat this approach in other states and looking at total landscape impacts. This tutorial video we created for the project will show you exactly what we've mapped here. 

Understanding the public and environmental impacts of drilling is complicated, especially since these industrial operations are scattered all across the landscape; some sites are remote while others are right next to homes and farms. But the data you help create in these projects enable SkyTruth and our partners to correlate this data about when and where drilling occurred with public health and environmental data. This research is starting to bear fruit as our partners at Johns Hopkins recently released a study showing that living in the most active quarter of Pennsylvania's Marcellus gasfield was associated with a 40% increase in the likelihood of pregnant mothers giving birth prematurely. Scary indeed.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Inside a Hotspot: A Timelapse of Shale Drilling in Pennsylvania

Earlier this month we published a map of active Marcellus shale wellpads in Pennsylvania as observed on aerial survey imagery from 2005, 2008, 2010, and 2013 by our FrackFinder citizen scientists. Now we thought we'd take a closer look at one of those hotspots of drilling activity, specifically an area in Washington County, PA near Cross Creek County Park and the town of Hickory. 

For this visualization, we created a 3.4 acre buffer around each active wellpad, a number we derived from our related work mapping the footprint of wellpads in Eastern Ohio. We have not yet measured the cumulative footprint of drilling activity in Pennsylvania, so we used the median area for wellpads in Ohio's Marcellus and Utica shale play. 

However, the impact of drilling is not just restricted to the gravel parking lot around a wellhead, it extends to service roads, pipelines, waste impoundments, gas separators, compressor stations, etc. So to visualize that impact, we have also included a snapshot of the aerial survey imagery for the same area from each of the respective years. 

These visuals are cumulative, meaning that not every wellpad was visibly active at the time of the aerial survey. However, given the predicted lifespan of shale wells we can expect that almost all of these sites could be expanded and re-fracked several times over the coming decades. If you want to take a closer look you can download high-resolution stills from our album over at Flickr or explore the interactive map of all observed, active wellpads in Pennsylvania. 

This kind of dense drilling activity in close proximity to homes and towns is cause for serious concern with recent findings by our partners at Johns Hopkins who found that "expectant mothers living in the most active area of fracking drilling and production activity were 40 percent more likely to give birth prematurely (before 37 weeks of gestation)." Our goal with these maps and mapping projects is that the resulting data will be used to better understand the public health and environmental impacts of resource extraction activities like fracking.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Mapping Abandoned Coal Mines

Did you know there are 48,529 abandoned coal mines in the United States which are known to pose a threat to the public and/or the environment? This number comes from the most comprehensive federal database that we know of – the enhanced Abandoned Mine Lands Inventory System (eAMLIS) maintained by the Office of Surface Mining (OSM)

Of the 48,529 abandoned mine sites shown on the map below, 36,191 are categorized "Priority 1" or "Priority 2", meaning they pose a "threat to health, safety and general welfare of people." The remaining 12,408 mines are classified as "Priority 3", that is, sites which pose a threat to the environment. However, because this map only includes mines that are truly abandoned AND which have been catalogued by the federal government, this map is probably not a complete inventory of the abandoned and inactive coal mines in the US.

Click here or above to explore the interactive map.

Back in August the Animas River in southwestern Colorado turned orange for miles after millions of gallons of mine waste erupted from an inactive gold mine. The dayglo color of the river, coupled with the fact that the spill was trigged by contractors from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) trying to fix the problem, captured national attention for weeks. In response to that spill we took it upon ourselves to map nearly 65,000 inactive metal mines using the most extensive federal database that we could find. The spill from the Gold King Mine was not the first of its kind, and it most likely will not be the last, but it revived discussion about the challenge and cost of reclaiming an estimated 500,000 abandoned and inactive mines (gold, coal, and otherwise) that litter the landscape. 

According to OSM definitions this database of problematic coal mines includes 1,167 "Dangerous Impoundments", 1,298 sites with polluted groundwater ("Polluted Water: Agricultural & Industrial" and "Polluted Water: Human Consumption"), and 276 "Underground Mine Fires" like the one still burning beneath the ghost town of CentraliaBut again, we have to add a caveat: just because a mine was classified abandoned does not mean that there hasn't at least been some effort made at reclamation. "Abandoned" in this context means that the responsible party (the mining company) has reneged on their responsibility for reclamation, leaving the taxpayers (you and I) stuck with the bill to clean it up. 

Above: The Cheat River in Preston County, WV still has rocks stained orange by acid mine drainage from an abandoned mine which first blew out in 1994. Read the history of that mine blowout and the efforts which have restored the Cheat River to a thriving, life-sustaining waterway. Image via Friends of the Cheat. 

This database primarily covers abandoned coal mines.  While there are a few non-coal mines in the database, we did our best to exclude any non-coal mines based on the federal funding source assigned to their cleanup. With some guidance from a GIS specialist at OSM we believe this map provides a decent overview of the known high-priority abandoned coal mines, but please let us know if you discover any mistakes by commenting below.

Much like our previous map of abandoned and inactive metal mines, this map is only part of the story. There are many flaws within the federal database, including contradictory descriptions of what the various fields mean. But while we know this doesn't show every abandoned coal mine the country, and some sites may have been expertly reclaimed by state, federal, and non-profit initiatives, this map also underscores the alarming lack of reliable data about sites which could still cause disastrous releases of toxic wastes for decades to come. 

Friday, October 2, 2015

Map of Active Wellpads in Pennsylvania: 2005-2013

Citizen-scientist analysis of aerial survey imagery from 2013, validated by SkyTruth, found 1,615 new wellpads in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale (and related Devonian shales). This latest result of our ongoing FrackFinder projects brings the total to 2,724 active industrial operations that we have identified spread across the fields and forests of Pennsylvania. These numbers are not to be confused with rig counts (which maxed out at 116 in 2011 and 2012) or the total number of shale wells drilled in William Penn's woods (over 7,788). 

Because drilling rigs move around and operators often drill multiple wells from each wellpad, this count is a more accurate representation of the number of locations around the Commonwealth where land has been cleared, pipelines have been laid, impoundments have been built, water and chemicals have been trucked in, and equipment has been assembled to drill and frack one or more wells. 

Click here or the animation above to explore an interactive map of wellpads observed in 2005, 2008, 2010, and 2013. The animation shows all observed wellpads cumulatively, 2005 = Blue, 2008 = Yellow, 2010 = Orange, and 2013 = Red. 

By itself this data might not be much different than what you could generate from looking at permit data and when drilling began, but we have included this phase in all our FrackFinder projects so that we can be sure we are looking at all the right places. Sometimes permit data is backlogged and a dataset you download today may not reflect everything that is happening in the real world. Additionally, having several years of crowdsourced image analysis data will enable us to do some nice comparisons to see how accurate state data are, as well as check the accuracy of our citizen scientists. 

Wellpad in a Pennsylvania State Forest in 2012. Credit: Bill Howard, The Downstream Project via LightHawk

To provide some context for all those points on the map, check out these aerial photos from our parters at the Downstream Project. Wellpads are typically 3-5 acre gravel parking lots surrounded by roads, impoundments, pipelines, and other related infrastructure. In high-density drilling areas, or areas with a lot of steep terrain, these sites can occupy 15-20 acres of interconnected industrial activity. Ultimately, we are doing these studies so that we can better understand the public and environmental health implications of living near these operations.

Stay tuned for news about a new FrackFinder project coming up for a brand new state (Hint: It's a very mountainous state and the only one in the Union with this cardinal direction of the compass in its name). 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Mapping Inactive Metal Mines Across the US

On August 5, more than 3,000,000 gallons of acidic, heavy-metal-laden mine waste from the Gold King Mine polluted the Animas River in southwestern Colorado. Ironically, the accident occurred while contractors for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were trying to plug a smaller leak from the inactive mine that was already polluting the river. 
This was not the first river famous for trout fishing and whitewater to be so poisoned. And, as you read on, you’ll see it’s not likely to be the last.

While headlines across the country point fingers, hundreds of thousands of similar abandoned and inactive mines lie scattered across the nation.
With all the attention on the problem of abandoned and inactive mines we thought we would try to map some of these other mines that haven't made headlines (yet). 

Click the image to explore the interactive map of inactive and abandoned mines across the U.S. (including Alaska)
The most extensive, and most current, nationwide dataset that we could find was the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) Mineral Resources Data System (MRDS), which contains information about over 266,000 sites in the United States.

However, "most extensive" is a relative term. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States hosts anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 abandoned mines , while third party reports from the early 1990's compiled from state-by-state data put the number at over 557,000. While the USGS data contains plenty of information about the type of minerals once produced by these mines, it says little-to-nothing about who is responsible for the site or the status of site reclamation.

So the very best that we could do to visualize abandoned and inactive mines using this data was to select only the mines whose development status as of 2012 was listed as a "Past Producer":

"[a] mine formerly operating that has closed, where the equipment or structures may have been removed or abandoned."

In order not to clutter the map with quarries and gravel pits, we also excluded sites that exclusively produced nonmetallic commodities. This leaves us with the 64,883 mines you see above, ranging from 200+ year old gold mines in Virginia to Cold War era uranium mines in the Four Corners region of the desert Southwest.

Credit: SandhillFarms1625
What we should all take away from this map (besides an appreciation for the immense number of holes we've dug in the ground) is the alarming lack of data about the scope and scale of the abandoned and inactive mine problem. Even counting the quarries and gravel pits, the MRDS dataset only contains 118,399 records for past producers in the US, and the Office of Surface Mining's enhanced Abandoned Mine Lands Inventory System (eAMLIS) database (not included in this map) only contains 53,794 records, mostly for coal. Even adding these two datasets together leaves us hundreds of thousands of mines short of the aforementioned estimates.

More than anything, this map shows how both the public and our public officials are largely in the dark about the abandoned and inactive mine lands that litter the landscape. Furthermore, we have little information about which of these thousands of points on the map have been reclaimed, and which are toxic abscesses in the earth's surface just waiting to poison another watershed.


You can download and examine the raw data for yourself at Do you know of other federal datasets we should look at for information on inactive metal mines? Leave a link in the comments below.