Site 23051, Not Going Away

Pretty sizable slick emanating from Site 23051 shown in yesterday’s MODIS image. Below is the image with no markups:

MODIS Aqua image from 5/30

And the same image below showing the size of the slick using the tools in Google Earth to measure the perimeter of the spill:

The outline of this slick is over 27 miles in diameter, the area of the spill is over 11,000 acres. The report from the NRC which is collected daily by our SkyTruth Alerts on this spill lists it as 11.55 gallons of oil. The SkyTruth calculations, assuming a minimum average thickness of 1/1000th of a millimeter (1 micron) on the surface, comes out to  more than 11,700 gallons. You can see more images of this site on our SkyTruth Oil Spill Reports site here, and you can look over our Site 23051 Chronology page which is updated everyday.

What’s In My Frack Fluid?

Let’s consider a typical hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operation at a natural-gas well in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. This particular frack site is right in the middle of Marcellus Shale country and lies along the state’s western border, in a rural community similar to many throughout the mid-Atlantic region. The nearest house is approximately 300 feet away and the nearest neighborhood is 1200 feet away. Within 3000 feet of the site lies a sprawling golf course and a small community of 20 houses. The frack site itself is in the center of a farm field in an agricultural setting, and is operated by Chesapeake Energy Appalachia LLC. 

Location of the frack site; note proximity to farms and houses
 With such close proximity to a small community, the chemicals used in the fracking procedure certainly raise concerns.  So…what exactly is in “fracking fluid” anyway? is the website used by the drilling industry to voluntarily publish their frack site information (i.e. location, ingredients in frack fluid) for the public to see, and a quick look at it’s ingredients list should help to answer our question.
 The ingredients list for this specific frack reveals a seemingly innocuous mixture (for a fluid that, y’know, breaks open rock thousands of feet below the ground). The fracking fluid consists mostly of water (89% by weight) and sand (10.38%). These ingredients amount to 25,025 tons of fluid. The remaining 0.52% of the mixture is made up of an additional 133 tons of chemicals that must be trucked onto the site. 


Chart with identifying information on frack site studied (Source:
Though most of the individual chemicals are less than one ton, there are larger amounts of certain ingredients. For instance, hydrogen chloride (hydrochloric acid) totals a whopping 41 tons. Other ingredients, such as a ‘carbohydrate polymer’ comprise 33 tons, and a ‘synthetic organic polymer’ makes up 21 tons of the fluid. Other high-amount ingredients include tetramethyl ammonium chloride (13 tons), ‘aliphatic polyol’ (11 tons), potassium hydroxide (5.5 tons) and hydrotreated petroleum distillate (3 tons).


Excerpt from FracFocus data sheet showing amount of hydrogen chloride (hydrochloric acid) used in Chesapeake frack. Amounts in FracFocus are given as total percentage of the frack fluid by weight, not a very meaningful way to present this information to the public.
The problem is the incomplete disclosure of these chemicals. Each ingredient I’ve listed in the above paragraph in quotation marks has a generic name, and is lacking a Chemical Abstract Service (CAS) number that specifies what the chemical really is. Counting the three ingredients I’ve already listed in this article (the aliphatic polyol, the carbohydrate polymer and the synthetic organic polymer) there are a total of six ingredients in this particular mixture that have no CAS number. Totaled, this means almost half of the chemicals listed (by weight) have been purposely unaccounted for. 
That’s right:  65 tons of mystery chemicals trucked down narrow country roads past farms, homes and schools, and injected into the ground:


Comparison of chemicals accounted for and chemicals not identified (red).

30 Years of Mountain Top Removal in Logan County, WV

Last Friday, I posted a blog about our historical map showing the cumulative impact of mountain top removal coal-mining activity. At John’s request, I have begun using this data set to assess the expansion of observable mountain top removal (MTR) mining footprint since 2005, when the data set was last updated. I’ve used Logan County, WV as my test sample.


According to the original analysis approximately 1,200 acres of Logan County was affected by MTR mining techniques in 1976. In 1985, approximately 500 additional acres of land was affected, an additional 9,100 acres in 1995 and 7,700 acres more in 2005. That makes a total of 18,500 acres directly impacted by mining operations as of 2005.  

How much has changed? Utilizing high-resolution aerial imagery from 2011 — now viewable in Google Earth– I’ve mapped out the newly affected areas. Those areas totaled 4,500 acres, a 24% increase since 2005. 

30 Years of Mountain Top Removal in Google Earth

Yay! We’ve got a new toy here at the lab! We’ve received a Google Earth Builder license! We’re excited because it will allow us to publish huge data sets that we were never able to publish before.  
The first thing we’ve decided to publish is a historic map of the cumulative impact of mountain top removal (MTR) coal-mining activity. This is part of an analysis we published in 2009 in partnership with Appalachian Voices using satellite images. That data set illustrates the extent of mining activity in 58 counties throughout Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia. It specifically illustrates the increase in both mountain top removal mining and conventional surface strip mining from 1976 to 2005.
I’m currently working on creating map layers to be published in Google Earth, revealing the extent of mountain top removal mining operations (mining cuts and valley fills) over these years. Google will publish this data set as a featured project in September. Until then, you can interact with the map layers in Google Maps. Toggle “Satellite” and zoom way in to see the mining operations in detail. For most of West Virginia, the imagery shown in Google Maps is actually high-resolution aerial survey photography that was shot last summer.  Try turning the mining layers on and off too:


Site 23051: Still Lots of Oil, Still Lots of Underreporting

For those of you keeping track, in April the NRC received 27 reports over the course of 30 days for the site of Platform 23051 in the Gulf of Mexico off the Mississippi Delta. This is the site where Taylor Energy had 26 wells destroyed by Hurricane Ivan back in 2004. According to the NRC and our SkyTruth Alerts site for the month of April, Taylor reported 105.74 gallons total were coming from these leaking wells. That’s 3.92 gallons per day. But according to our SkyTruth calculations of the size and sheen of these reports, assuming a minimum average thickness of 1/1000th of a millimeter, we estimate that 7639.92 gallons were leaked during the month of April. That’s 282.96 gallons per day. Our SkyTruth Site 23051 Chronology page is where we keep track daily of all NRC reports that are taken for this site, and you can see that page and more on our SkyTruth Oil Spill Reports site.

SkyTruth Alert received on 5/11 for the NRC report received on 5/10 for a leak at Site 23051.

Can Carbon Nanotubule Sponges Soak Up The Next Oil Spill?

We’ve been carping on this site about the lack of progress in cleaning up an oil spill in the water.  The oil industry has been relying on pretty much the same techniques — booms to corral the oil, mechanical skimmers to pick it up off the water, intentional burning of the thickest oil, and chemical dispersants to break it up and sink it — that have been used for decades, with little success and little improvement.

But we’re excited by the recent announcement of what could be a new tool to strengthen our weak cleanup arsenal: researchers have invented small sponges made of carbon nanotubules, a material that shuns water and attracts oil.  They claim these sponges can be squeezed out and re-used multiple times, or incinerated to generate electricity.

We don’t know how much it costs to produce this material.  But we can envision an oil-spill response scenario where air tankers drop loads of these sponges into the thickest parts of the slick.  After a few hours or days of soaking up oil, skimmer vessels towing magnetic booms collect the sponges and scoop them up.  The sponges could be processed at sea to squeeze the oil out with a press or centrifuge, then redeployed to soak up another load.

These sponges might work on slicks too thin to effectively skim or burn, or in high sea-state conditions that usually bring cleanup operations to a grinding halt. This is all just speculation until we can see this new material in action.  We look forward to learning more about it.

Mining in Alaska – New Interactive Map

The folks at Ground Truth Trekking just released a nifty interactive map called Alaskan Hardrock Mining Exploration, showing the locations of active hardrock mines and hardrock mining prospects in Alaska.

Until we saw this map we had no idea there was so much potential mining activity across the state. You can read a lot more about that on GTT’s Alaska Metals Mining site.

Like our SkyTruth Alerts map, you can zoom in to a specific place and sign up to get an email when new hardrock mining activity pops up in that area of interest: