Thursday, October 27, 2011

Hydrogen Cyanide Leak at Delaware City Oil Refinery Has Been Fixed

Yesterday's Dover Post says the leak has been fixed at the Delaware City Refinery, and there is no longer any release of hydrogen cyanide:

“Based on an analysis of the emissions, DNREC does not consider there to be a threat to public health,” said Michael Globetti, a spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. “Even at its source within the refinery, the HCN now being released is exponentially less than the permissible threshold for exposure allowed under federal law."

“The highest concentration of HCN was projected to occur approximately three-fourths of a mile from the source at a concentration of 3 parts per billion,” Globetti said. “By comparison, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s permissible exposure level to HCN without adverse effects is 10 parts per million.”

PBF Energy spokesperson Mike Gayda said that a low level concentration of about 10 parts per million was emitted into the air. He compared this to a drop of soy sauce in a pot of water.

Soy sauce? This is not soy sauce, it's a deadly toxin. If you take a look at this table from the CDC's website, you'll see that while yes, exposure of 10 parts per million might be permissible, continuous exposure to that much becomes unpleasant pretty quickly:

Acute Exposure Guidelines

5 min 10 min 30 min 1 hr 4 hr 8 hr
(discomfort, non-disabling) - mg/m3
Not established/ determined 2.5 ppm 2.5 ppm 2.0 ppm 1.3 ppm 1.0 ppm
(irreversible or other serious, long-lasting effects or impaired ability to escape) - mg/m3
Not established/ determined 17 ppm 10 ppm 7.1 ppm 3.5 ppm 2.5 ppm
(life-threatening effects or death) - mg/m3
Not established/ determined 27 ppm 21 ppm 15 ppm 8.6 ppm 6.6 ppm

Note that DNREC said the highest concentration was "projected" to occur at a point 3/4 mile away from the source. "Projected" means they probably ran a computer model to simulate the leak, they didn't take any measurements of the actual concentration of hydrogen cyanide in the air around the refinery. Was there a school close to that point? A playground? A church? Lots of what if's, and not very timely disclosure to your neighbors.

Subscribe to SkyTruth Alerts to learn about incidents like this near your home, school or business.

Just for clarification purposes, there was a release of 524 pounds of sulfur dioxide reported on 10/26 from the north flare at the Delaware City Refinery. It appeared to be a one time release and there have been no subsequent reports from the refinery since that date.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Update on the Delaware City Refinery

In an updated story from the Middletown Transcript from October 24, Michael Gayda, a spokesman for PBF energy, the company that owns the refinery reports that 'there is no “high level” risk and that they are working to have the problem fixed by the end of the month.'

What is the definition of "high risk"?

The story also reports that the Delaware City refinery reopened October 7 after being closed for nearly two years. The first report of hydrogen cyanide being released from the facility was received by the National Response Center on October 2, and has been reported every day since then.

Curious how the refinery was permitted to open 5 days after they reported that a boiler on the FCC unit blew a hole in the line causing a release of hydrogen cyanide and that the unit had been shut down for repair?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Release of Hydrogen Cyanide Still On-Going at Delaware City Refinery

We still don't know exactly the cause of the release of 200 pounds of Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) per day at the Delaware City Refinery. The only information we get through our SkyTruth Alerts system is what they report to the NRC, and yesterday's report said:


A release of this compound is not very common, according to our research. We went back 10 years through the our alerts database looking for reports of releases of 100 pounds or more of Hydrogen Cyanide. Not counting the daily release of 200 pounds from the Delaware City Refinery this month, we found only 48 other incidents reported to the NRC over the entire 10 year period. Obviously, this is NOT a common occurrence. 

How long will this last? How dangerous is this chemical release to the surrounding communities? With regard to health effects, according to this from the CDC's Medical Management Guidelines for Hydrogen Cyanide,
  • Hydrogen cyanide is highly toxic by all routes of exposure and may cause abrupt onset of profound CNS, cardiovascular, and respiratory effects, leading to death within minutes.
  • Exposure to lower concentrations of hydrogen cyanide may produce eye irritation, headache, confusion, nausea, and vomiting followed in some cases by coma and death.
  • Hydrogen cyanide acts as a cellular asphyxiant. By binding to mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase, it prevents the utilization of oxygen in cellular metabolism. The CNS and myocardium are particularly sensitive to the toxic effects of cyanide.
To be notified of additional reports at this location, you can follow this incident 3 ways:

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Alberta's Tar Sands: In-Situ Extraction Converted to Mining?

Well, no. Our friends at The Pembina Institute who study tar sands development and other energy issues, inform us that what we observed on recent imagery does not show the footprint of in-situ extraction.  It does show the intense landscape fragmentation caused by the delineation wells and seismic survey lines that are part of the exploration process, to evaluate the quality and extent of tar sands deposits prior to mining.  According to Pembina, all of the disruption associated with this exploration activity occurs BEFORE any environmental assessment is submitted. That seems bassackwards...

2008 Google Earth imagery showing intense footprint of in-situ bitumen extraction from tar sands deposits near Cold Lake, Alberta.
Meanwhile, here is a shot of an in-situ extraction project (using the SAGD process, Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage), located about 15 miles northwest of Cold Lake, Alberta.  Best we can tell this is part of Shell's Orion project.  The well sites are about 5 acres in size and they are spaced very closely together.  The result is a pretty heavy surface footprint on the landscape, similar to what we see with natural gas drilling and fracking in places like western Wyoming's Jonah and Pinedale Anticline fields. 

Reaction to John's presentation at LightHawk

Here are some comments we received after our presentation at LightHawk’s annual Fly-In held in Boise, ID the weekend of October 7-9.

"Thanks so much for your great presentation at the LightHawk fly-in—definitely one of the most compelling I’ve seen in a long time, and a great antidote to the powerlessness one can sometimes feel."

"I want you to know I thought your presentation at the LightHawk meeting was superb!"

"Thank you for your presence at LightHawk's Fly-In. Your presentation (in both content and style) was fantastic! I came away with a far better appreciation of the power of satellite imagery for conservation outcomes and have great respect for the accountability work you are doing. I look forward to seeing how LH & SkyTruth might work closely in the future!"

"I really enjoyed your presentation and meeting you again after 10 years. Your presentation was terrific. You provide a great service on behalf of the health of this planet. Bullshit Buster Extraordinaire! Maybe you should wear a cape."

Very kind words to hear, thanks folks!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tracking the Delaware City Hydrogen Cyanide Release

We still don't know yet what the full story is behind the ongoing release of potentially lethal hydrogen cyanide at the Delaware City Oil Refinery that was discovered by SkyTruth this morning, but we can tell you all how to track the incident for yourselves so that you'll know what happens next as soon as we do.

To be notified of additional reports at this location, you can follow this incident 3 ways:

Over 28,000 Abandoned Wells in the Gulf of Mexico

How's this for a number? According to data released by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Enforcement, there are currently 24,486 known permanently abandoned wells in the Gulf of Mexico, and 3,593 "temporarily" abandoned wells, as of October 2011. 

Permanently Abandoned Wells in the Gulf of Mexico

Temporarily Abandoned Wells in the Gulf of Mexico

These wells range in dates of abandonment from as early as 1948 to August of this year. This includes some "temporarily" abandoned wells from the 1950's! That is a pretty loose definition of "temporary" in this analyst's opinion.
In industry terms, the "temporary" label is given to those wells which companies found more profitable to close off for a short time to begin re-drilling at a later date. Thus, "fewer plugs are installed and the seals are not as secure." 
It is important to remember that even in the case of permanently abandoned wells, degradation of plugs and casings is not uncommon, as many were sealed before strict regulations were implemented or before the sealing technology used today was available.

The obvious question: Are these abandoned wells still capable of leaking oil into the ocean?
Answer: Absolutely.
According to a recent AP report, "in deeper federal waters...there is very little investigation into the state of abandoned wells." Um, really? Lest anyone forget it was in these "deeper waters" that the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred (a well actually being "temporarily" plugged at the time of the blowout), taking over three months to effectively seal and depositing an estimated 5 million barrels of oil into the ocean. Since those pesky deep waters are so difficult to work in I suppose it makes sense to have minimal inspections there...

However, good news may be on the horizon for this "Ocean of Holes."  President Obama announced last year that all temporarily abandoned wells must be plugged and all non-producing platforms be removed. 

According to BOEMRE's data, which is displayed in this analysis, these 3,500 well records are still on the books for as late as August 2011. Guess the jury is still out as to when all those "temporarily" abandoned wells will be properly plugged.

Furthermore, this policy means that if these wells are sealed and no longer classified as "temporary" then another 3,500 wells will become "permanently" abandoned, thereby adding to the number of wells which have traditionally been minimally inspected and maintained.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster called an unprecedented amount of attention to this long-neglected issue and it is crucial that this problem remain one of concern to the public and Congress.

Hydrogen Cyanide Release in Delaware

As the Office Admin here at SkyTruth, I've had a hand in getting the SkyTruth Alerts system up and running, and I use the system to monitor both the issues in the Gulf of Mexico as well as in the Delaware Valley. I moved here to Shepherdstown from Southern NJ, I have family and friends that still live back in Philly and I have my alerts set to that area because people I know and love are there.

I've gotten alerts almost on a daily basis from SkyTruth Alerts about a release of Hydrogen Cyanide from the Delaware City Refinery in Delaware, right across the river from Southern New Jersey. I downloaded all the data from the reports received by the National Response Center regarding this release and am quite frankly upset by the lack of information put out to the general public regarding this issue. After Googling Hydrogen Cyanide, Delaware City Refinery, the first three results were this page from the Official Website of the State of Delaware, and the alerts from SkyTruth's Alerts system dating back to October 2. No media coverage, no local interest. Does my family know that they are being subjected to this? Probably not because hydrogen cyanide is, according to Wikipedia, colorless and odorless unless you possess a specific genetic trait that allows you to detect it.

Google Image of the Delaware City Refinery just across the river from
Pennsville and Salem, New Jersey

The report on 10/2 taken by the NRC states that just trace amounts of Hydrogen Cyanide have been released. Yet the report on 10/14 says that 200 pounds has already been released. In addition to Hydrogen Cyanide, they also report the release of Carbon Sulfide, Ammonia, Hydrogen Sulfide and Anhydrous.

Wind direction, according to Weather Underground seems to be blowing these chemicals towards NJ over the last few days. Do you hear that, Pennsville residents? Hello Salem?? You guys listening? And there is no smell unless you have that genetic trait that allows you to smell Hydrogen Cyanide.

This is a great example of how the SkyTruth Alerts system can be useful for citizen monitoring. I'm not a techie girl, I'm not a GIS analyst, I'm a mom, a sister, a daughter and a concerned friend, and this system provides me with a way to see what's going on in the place where the people I love live, and I will continue to use it to monitor the places I care about.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Alberta's Tar Sands: In-Situ Extraction Converted to Mining?

Canada's massive Athabasca tar-sands mining operation in Alberta has been in the news, as the U.S. State Department nears a decision to approve or reject the Keystone XL pipeline.  This proposed pipeline would carry oil extracted from the tar sands through the heartland of the U.S. to refineries on the Gulf coast, where it would be processed and most likely exported to Mexico, and Central and South America.  (Fun fact: we already export more petroleum than we import here in the US, which is why the "energy independence" argument for more drilling is a bunch of hooey.) 

Speaking of hooey: the extraction and processing of tar sands bitumen into oil has a very high carbon footprint and uses large amounts of fresh water.  You can read all about it here.

We're watching the production end of this mess, looking at the steadily growing impacts in Alberta where the tar sands are being exploited, mostly by good ol' fashioned mining but also by in-situ extraction of bitumen. Google Earth now has 2010 high-resolution imagery covering most of the active tar-sands extraction areas, just north of Fort McMurray, Alberta along the Athabasca River.  There is also a good database of historical imagery in Google, so you can do some interesting time-series analysis. 

One thing we noticed - a 7,000-acre forested area of what appeared to be in-situ extraction since 2003 is now cleared and actively being mined.  Industry has been touting in-situ extraction as a more "environmentally friendly" way to produce the tar sands, but that's just PR bull if they're going to eventually mine it anyway.

Here are a few examples to get you started on your own skytruthing adventure of this leading environmental issue.  Let us know if you see anything interesting! 
Overview in Google Earth showing part of the tar sands mining complex straddling the Athabasca River about 40 miles north of Fort McMurray, Alberta.  High-resolution imagery from 2010.
Detail showing 7,000-acre recently cleared area, at upper right in overview image above.
Same area as it appeared in 2005, using Google Earth "view historical imagery" tool. Area is mostly forested in 2005, but marked by regular grid of dirt access roads leading to small clearings that we assume are well sites for in-situ extraction of tar sands oil.  Compare with 2010 image below.

Recently cleared area in 2010.  Apparently in-situ extraction has been replaced by conventional mining. Area was still forested in 2006 but by 2008 logging had cleared most of the land, and conventional mining operations were underway.  Compare with 2005 image above.

Zooming in even further on the 2010 image, we can see details of the active mining that's now taking place.
And here is what that same place looked like in 2005.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Legacy of the Past: Over 7,000 Abandoned and/or Orphan Oil & Gas Wells in Pennsylvania Alone

As part of SkyTruth's ongoing work to illustrate drilling through images, mapping and raw data analysis, analysts have produced a new map illustrating the startling number of improperly abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania.

Drilling in the state goes as far back at 1859 but it was not until the 1920s that legislation required all new wells to be plugged at production's end, and not until the 1960s that all wells had to be permitted. As a result, thousands of oil and gas wells with no recorded location information litter the state, many that were never properly sealed (plugged) or are in varying states of deterioration; 2,184 abandoned and/or orphan wells in McKean County alone.

 This issue has become of greater concern due to increased drilling throughout the state, especially in the Marcellus Shale region. As more and more companies scramble to gain footholds in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and even New York, it is crucial that industry players and local citizens alike recall what past drilling booms have left behind. The effects of a well, even after it has stopped producing, can have serious environmental and health consequences for decades to come if proper regulations are not mandated and followed.

Top 5 counties in Pennsylvania with largest number of abandoned and orphan oil/gas wells

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Waterkeeper Alliance Takes Legal Action on Chronic Leak at 23051 Site in Gulf

One of our partners in the Gulf Monitoring Consortium, Waterkeeper Alliance, has filed a notice of intent to sue over the ongoing, chronic oil leak from the site of former platform 23051 in the Gulf of Mexico.  We discovered this leak last May while analyzing imagery of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  According to the operator, Taylor Energy, and the Coast Guard, the wells at that location were damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and, we presume, have been leaking 24/7 ever since. Repeated observations of the site on satellite images and via aerial overflights confirm that the leak is ongoing.

Occasionally we've observed a deepwater drill rig, the Ocean Saratoga, at the site, working to plug these leaking wells.  But it's not there continuously which makes us wonder: is the rig being pulled away from time to time for more lucrative drilling and workover jobs that pay a higher day rate?  We don't know.

We've compiled a chronology of what we know about this chronic leak site.  We'll continue to add to it as we see more evidence of ongoing leakage, part of our daily monitoring of the Gulf. If you'd like to bird-dog this site yourself - or anyplace else in the US for that matter - check out our SkyTruth Alerts. Or just click one of the following:

Monday, October 10, 2011

Predicted Top Threatened Watersheds in Pennsylvania

As part of SkyTruth's Marcellus drilling monitoring program, we are publishing a new tool called the Fracking Hotspot Map.

The current Pennsylvania Fracking HotSpot Map, which highlights the top five most threatened watersheds in the next six months (October 2011 - March 2012) was derived from data provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Oil and Gas Management.

The PADEP disseminates all permit and well records for drilling events in the state, which SkyTruth consults regularly to keep findings as up to date as possible. In order to create the HotSpot analysis, permits for only new (not renewed) Marcellus wells approved between April 1 - September 30, 2011 were downloaded and joined with records of actual wells drilled between that time. Any permits with wells already drilled were removed, thus leaving all permits yet to be drilled as of September 30, 2011. Analyzing past year's permit and well reports revealed that, as a whole, the majority of permits are drilled within six months of issue.

SkyTruth used this model as a basis to locate the most heavily permitted, and thus the most future drilled, watersheds in the PA Marcellus shale region.

Affected Pennsylvania Watersheds - There are 90 in total. The dark red polygons will experience the highest drilling activity within the next six months.
Legend showing watershed color distributions and densities.

View Full Data Set

The impact of this type of analysis is obvious. Concerned homeowners, industry players and policy makers can pinpoint which counties, townships and watersheds will be most greatly affected by future drilling. Further data inclusions can highlight impacts to state land, protected forest, and fish and wildlife concentrations.

It is SkyTruth's hope that with such accurate geographical knowledge, Pennsylvanians can take steps to foresee and mitigate future possible environmental harm caused by increased hydraulic fracturing.
Townships located in high permit dense watersheds, such as Little Connoquenessing Creek or Sugar Creek, can take extra precautions such as pre-drill and post-drill well water testing.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Visualizing Local Impacts of Coal Exports to China

Hello, my name is Yolandita. I am an Environmental Sustainabilty major at Shepherd University and a volunteer at SkyTruth. I have been asked to produce a 3D model of a coal train, that will be published to Google Earth. Coal companies are planning to export coal from Powder River Coal Fields in Wyoming to Bellingham, Washington, where it will ultimately be exported to markets in Asia. There will be 60 trains, each nearly a mile and a half long, making the trip daily. The 3D model will demonstrate what the train will look like passing through small towns along the way such as Billings, Montana and help visualize the local impacts.

Close up of the locomotive in Google Earth, with downtown Billings skyline in the background.

I used Google Sketchup and Google Sketchup Gallery to make the train model. I found and downloaded a perfect model of a BNSF locomotive and a few vehicles that would work. I then downloaded a coal car model and, using Google Sketchup, broke it to pieces and rebuilt it to match one of the BNSF coal car models.

Shot of the coal car, as I edit it, in sketchup.

The coal train shown below is a scale model of a 7,500 foot long BNSF train that will make the trip from Wyoming to Washington. The average carrying capacity for BNSF coal cars are just over 113 tons of coal. We’ve estimated that a typical train will consist of about 137 coal cars, which would mean an average of about 15,500 tons of coal for each train. That’s over 930,000 tons of coal being transported every day.

Here you can see the full length of the train running parallel to Montana Ave.,
from 30th street to 10th street, in Billings, Montana

For more background on SkyTruth’s research on coal transportation and its impacts, check out some of our other blogs, such as Coal Dust Threat in Seward, Alaska.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Beautiful MODIS/Terra Image of Gulf Today

Thought I'd share this pretty satellite image of the Gulf of Mexico, taken at about 10:30 am local time this morning. No sign of the smoke plume we reported on from October 2, which was also visible on yesterday's Terra and Aqua images.

So enjoy.  Click to get the larger version, formatted to be 16:9 so it makes a sweet background for most computer monitors...!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Smoke Plume on Gulf Coast Near Vermilion Bay, LA

A small plume of smoke appears on yesterday morning's MODIS/Terra satellite image of the Gulf coast, not far from Vermilion Bay in Louisiana. It's not a big plume, only about 16 miles long, and normally we wouldn't note this except that a tiny diesel-oil spill (2 ounces!) was reported from a vessel at this same location back on September 27. 
MODIS/Terra image taken October 2, 2011 showing small smoke plume coinciding with a recent report of a small diesel leak from a vessel. Unknown if these events are related.

The Terra image was taken at about 10:45 am local time.  The MODIS/Aqua image taken a few hours later at about 2pm shows the plume is much fainter but stretches about 80 miles out into the Gulf.  The fire seems to be cooler - the smoke plume isn't as dense, and doesn't throw an obvious shadow like it does on the Terra image.  We don't know if this fire and the earlier report of a diesel leak from a vessel are related, but the spatial coincidence was too interesting to pass up. 

If anyone knows more about this fire please write in a comment to this post, or contact us.