Rampal Coal-Fired Power Plant Threatens Sundarbans

The Sundarbans: a near-mythic landscape of forest and swamp, byzantine river channels and tidal mud flats, one of the last strongholds of the highly endangered Bengal tiger.  Straddling the border separating India and Bangladesh, this impenetrable wilderness spans the mouths of the Ganges River as its broad delta meets the stormy Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean.  This is one of the special places on earth that is recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  That’s why concern is mounting over the construction of a new coal-fired power plant just upstream in Bangladesh, near the town of Rampal. One of the world’s poorest countries, Bangladesh needs stable sources of electricity to improve the general standard of living. But the location of this power plant is problematic. It’s being built along the bank of a distributary channel of the Ganges, one of the world’s biggest rivers, prone to regular flooding.  It is essentially at sea level, in a region routinely thrashed by strong tropical cyclones that push massive storm surges up those channels and far inland.  As global warming pushes up sea level, and is predicted to make tropical storms more intense, these problems will only get worse. (Irony alert: much of the global warming that imperils low-lying island nations and coastal nations like Bangladesh is a due to CO2 emissions from… coal-fired power plants.)

UNESCO spells out the risks to the Sundarbans in this report. Air pollution and fly-ash deposition downwind will impact the mangrove forests and alter the chemistry of surface waters; onsite storage of coal-ash in such a flood prone area poses a significant risk of water contamination (as we’ve seen here in the US, with a massive coal-ash spill in Tennessee and currently ongoing spills caused by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Matthew); and the transport of coal by large cargo ships increases the possibility of large oil spills, as we observed when two ships collided in the Sundarbans in December 2014.

We thought we would take a look at the Rampal power plant site using Google Earth to show what’s happening as the construction progresses:

skytruth-rampal-overview

Location of the Rampal coal-fired power plant in Bangladesh, currently under construction. The remaining intact mangrove forests of The Sundarbans are dark green.

skytruth-rampal-location

A closer look at the Rampal power plant site, on the eastern bank of a distributary channel of the Ganges River.

skytruth-rampal-ge-2001-september-29

Detail view of the Rampal site as it appeared in 2001, prior to any construction activity.  See time-series of matching views below.

skytruth-rampal-ge-2010-november-04

Rampal site in November 2010, prior to construction activity. Note that most of the area is flooded.

skytruth-rampal-ge-2014-april-24

Rampal site in April 2013. Construction activity is underway. Fill material (light brown) is being used to build up the site.

skytruth-rampal-ge-2016-march-21

Rampal site, March 2016. Fill material has been added to elevate and level the site, and levees (?) (bright strips?) are apparently being added along the perimeter.

skytruth-rampal-ge-2016-measured

Rampal site, March 2016. The site footprint now covers an area of 520 acres (nearly one square mile).

 

Photo of flooding aftermath in West Virginia

Come Hell & High Water: Flooding in West Virginia

In late June devastating flooding hit many communities across southern West Virginia resulting in over 20 fatalities and complete destruction of homes and businesses across the Mountain State. Because we are located in West Virginia and have been studying mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining across Appalachia, we’ve received a number of questions about what role MTR mining may have played in this recent disaster.

Depending on the amount of mining in the impacted watersheds, the quality of existing baseline data, and the number of measurements taken during and after the flood, scientists may not find a “smoking gun” directly linking the severity of this flood event with MTR mining. But let us take a look at what we do know about the relationship between flooding and MTR mining.

Drainage Sketches

 

If you are familiar with stormwater runoff issues then you have probably seen a diagram like the one above. Soil and vegetation absorb water. Impervious surfaces, like rock and pavement, do not. Since blasting off ridge tops to reach seams of buried coal strips the mountains of soil and vegetation, it seems logical that MTR mining would contribute to more intense flash floods. But even after decades of study there are a surprising number of gaps in our understanding of exactly how mining alters flooding.

Photo of flooding aftermath around Clendenin, W.Va.

Debris and mud are strewn around Clendenin, W.Va., after flood waters receded. Photo by Sam Owens, courtesy Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Research conducted so far suggests that MTR mining can contribute to greater flooding during intense rainfall events, but some studies actually found less severe flooding in watersheds with mining. Several of these studies suggested that valley-fills and underground mine workings have the ability to retain water, which may account for less severe “peaks” during moderately severe storms. If you want to dig into the details, I recommend starting with the summary of hydrological studies on MTR contained in Table 1 of this paper by Dr. Nicholas Zegre and Andrew Miller from West Virginia University.

What most of these studies have in common is that the researchers must at least know where mining occurred and how much surface area was impacted by said mining. This is where our work here at SkyTruth comes into play because we’ve been mapping the when, where, and how much of MTR mining for over forty years.

Thanks to a satellite record going back to the 1970’s, SkyTruth can look back in time to measure the footprint of mining in Appalachia. We continue to make this data freely available for research, and so far our decade-by-decade analysis has been cited in at least six peer-reviewed studies on the environmental and public health impacts of MTR. These studies investigate everything from the increased risk of birth defects and depression to impacts on biodiversity and hydrology. But clearly there are still many unanswered questions left to research.

Finally, it is worth noting that much of the rainfall (left) was concentrated on Greenbrier County, a part of the state with relatively little MTR mining. Neighboring Nicholas County, however, does have some large mines so it may be possible for hydrologists to diagnose and measure the difference in flooding between mined and unmined watersheds which received equivalent rainfall. But that will take time to decipher and analyze.

In the meantime, SkyTruth and our partners at Appalachian Voices and Duke University are working this summer  to update and refine our data about the spread of MTR mining in Appalachia. The resulting data will allow more comprehensive and more accurate research on the effects of MTR mining. Our vision is for this research and resulting studies on the impacts of MTR to lead to better decision-making about flood hazards, future mine permits, and mine reclamation.

Impact Story: SkyTruth Measures Advance of Mountaintop Destruction in Appalachia

OHVEC_Kayford-Mtn-MTR-4jan06.jpg

In recent decades, advances in technology–aided by low fuel costs and driven by the nation’s voracious demand for energy – have allowed mining companies to extract coal more profitably than through traditional underground mining methods. In Appalachia, these developments led to a rise of a new kind of coal mining, aptly named by its critics as “mountaintop removal,” because forest cover is first cut away and explosives are used to blast ridge tops and expose the coal seams beneath.

This form of strip mining also produces tons of “waste rock” (the parts of the mountain of no use to coal companies) that miners dump into neighboring valleys. The process is called “valley fill” and has buried more than a thousand miles of streams, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – posing immediate health and safety risks to local residents, threatening downstream drinking water supplies, and degrading or destroying some of the most ecologically significant forest and aquatic habitats on the planet.

Although the physical impact of mountaintop removal (MTR) on the landscape is more extensive than logging or development, there had been no accounting of the amount of land and locations affected until Appalachian Voices asked us to investigate. The results were shocking.

As miners began blasting away at mountains throughout Appalachian coal country, activists fought back passionately by forming new grassroots groups, taking to the streets, lobbying lawmakers, and speaking out in the press. But nobody – not even the government agencies charged with overseeing the industry – had a reliable map of where mining was underway and how many mountains had already been leveled. In fact, West Virginia officials acknowledged a significant mismatch between the mining permits they had issued, and actual mining activity in the state. Landsat satellite images and aerial survey photographs were publicly available but interpreting the data required expertise that the activists did not have. So, the nonprofit group Appalachian Voices called on SkyTruth for help.

Our experts used the satellite data to map the historical occurrence of mountaintop removal mining over a 30-year period. We selected 24 of the best cloudless, summertime shots for the years 1976, 1985, 1995 and 2005. The next step was to come up with a classification system that identified active mining, and differentiated between mountaintop removal mines and other types of surface mining in the region.

The U.S. Office of Surface Mining’s official definition of “mountaintop” mining was too vague for a GIS model. So, using their guidelines,  we incorporated the concept that the mines had to cross ridge tops and impact a significant area of ridge top. We then checked our work for accuracy against detailed aerial photographs.

The resulting map showed the spread of mountaintop removal mining across a 59-county area in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Virginia. The amount of landscape directly impacted by mountaintop removal increased by 3.5 times from a total of 77,000 acres in 1985 to more than 272,000 acres in 2005. The size of individual mines also increased, some to more than 15 square miles (an area as big as the city of Alexandria, Virginia). In all, the satellites show more than 2,700 ridge tops were impacted. Read more about how the analysis was conducted.

Mountaintop Removal Mines

Total MTR Mined Area since 1976  445,792 Acres
Largest Single Mined Area  10,410 Acres
Median Mined Area  128 Acres
Average Mined Area  406 Acres
Number of Ridges Mined  2,789
Total Acres of Impacted Ridges  130,655 Acres
Largest Ridge Removed  504 Acres

Matt Wasson, director of programs at Appalachian Voices, says the map has been an invaluable resource for those fighting mountaintop removal.

“It just filled in a huge gap, a question that came up again and again: How much land had been used up by mountaintop removal mining?” Wasson says. “SkyTruth offered a very credible and fully independent way to answer that question.”

Wasson says his group used the SkyTruth research to build the initial version of its “What’s My Connection? online map that lets people to type in their zip codes to see how their electricity supply is directly connected to mountaintop removal mining, and the communities affected by that practice.

More recently, Appalachian Voices and the Natural Resources Defense Council employed our map in its “Reclamation Fail” project that refutes mining industry assertions that valley fills provide much needed level, buildable land to stimulate local economies and create jobs. When the two nonprofit groups put the industry claim to the test, they found the vast majority – 89 percent – of the valley-fill sites had seen no economic development activity.

“That’s why we partnered with SkyTruth,” Wasson says. “They do credible work. They are a step removed from peer advocacy and are able to issue an objective report.”

We also used the historical data and variables such as coal thickness and overburden (the rock and soil that has to be blasted and removed before reaching the coal seam) to create a risk map that helps predict where coal companies might go next. We put the map to work in a preliminary investigation of what was driving mining expansion in Wise County, Virginia.

Independent academics are also using our MTR dataset to produce groundbreaking studies that are fundamentally changing the debate about the societal costs and benefits of MTR. In a 2011 study, Dr. Melissa Ahern (health economist at Washington State University), Dr. Michael Hendryx, (epidemiologist at West Virginia University) and their colleagues found “significantly higher” rates of birth defects in communities near MTR operations.

And Dr. Emily Bernhardt, a biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, led a 2010 study  that provides the first conclusive evidence of mountaintop removal mining’s direct link to downstream water pollution and related environmental destruction.

Bernhardt and her colleagues used the historical data we had mapped along with studies of water quality and invertebrate biodiversity collected by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.  They found that mining operations – even relatively small ones – can seriously debilitate ecosystems. The study, which was featured in the August 9, 2010 issue of Nature magazine and later published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology, raises serious doubts about the industry’s contention that there is no need for tighter water-quality standards to keep mountaintop removal from contaminating drinking water relied on by communities downstream of the mines.

When asked by Nature about the significance of the new study, EPA officials issued a statement calling the findings “generally consistent” with its own research. This work underpins EPA’s controversial decision to revoke a mining permit that had already been issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. It was only the second time in EPA’s history that they have exercised this authority under the Clean Water Act, and though it was challenged all the way up to the Supreme Court, the EPA’s authority to overrule the Army Corps of Engineers was reaffirmed in federal court in 2014.

 

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. 

Timelapse: Three Decades of Powder River Basin Coal Mining

Earlier this year Google launched the Timelapse project,  a global interactive map that uses three decades of Landsat imagery to show how our world is changing. One stunning example of human impact on the planet is the rapid buildout of Powder River Basin coal mines in the Thunder Basin National Grassland.

In addition to domestic power production, coal exports are an increasingly controversial issue as demand in Asia increases. Exporting coal means even more mining here at home, long coal trains transporting it to ports through busy cities, increased train derailments, and more dirty coal terminals that spill and flood


If you can’t see the embedded map above, please check it out on our website: http://skytruth.org/issues/mining/energy/

Be sure to check out past posts on this issue to see mines like this one compared with more familiar features like San Francisco, and get an idea how big the trains are that carry all this coal to foreign markets. And do some skytruthing of your own at: 

GMC Monitoring Flight – Mobile, Al to Gulfport, MS: Part I – Coal Export and Terminals

On March 24 staff from Gulf Monitoring Consortium members SkyTruth, SouthWings, and Gulf Restoration Network flew over the Alabama and Mississippi coastline investigating pollution and degradation related to energy development. Our flight originated from Mobile, arranged by SouthWings with local volunteer pilot Dr. David Mauritson generously donating his time, talents, and fuel to our monitoring efforts.First, we flew over the Port of Mobile which dominated the landscape immediately after takeoff from the Brookley Aeroplex. The port boasts the McDuffie Coal Terminal, one of the nation’s largest coal import-export terminals. In addition to several smaller facilities nearby, McDuffie can handle a staggering 30 million tons of coal in a year, but in the past year  they processed *just* 13.9 million tons – only 46% of capacity. These numbers are of interest because of the intensifying debate over coal export.  With cheap natural gas flooding the market from fracking plays like the Marcellus Shale, there is growing pressure to sell American coal overseas to foreign markets – particularly Asia and Europe.

McDuffie Coal Terminal on the south end of the Port of Mobile, supplied by coal from from as far away as Wyoming – most of which is transported by rail. Photo: D. Manthos – SkyTruth, via SouthWings

Only  one vessel was loading coal at the time of our flight, the Panama-flagged Grand Diva. This operation was depositing a black plume of coal dust in the water.

Plume of coal dust in the water (NRC Report #1042025off the starboard bow of the Germany-bound Grand Diva. Photo: D. Manthos – SkyTruth,  via SouthWings

As an individual case, this may not result in a significant impact on the environment.  But a brief review of Google Earth’s historical imagery yields two previous events clearly showing coal in the water, and several other less-clear images that appear to show pollution, suggesting this is a common event that may result in significant cumulative impact.

Air pollution is another consideration. Chronic coal-dust blowing off the stockpiles at a coal terminal are the basis of a Clean Water Act lawsuit in Seward, Alaska, and one of the main arguments throughout the Pacific Northwest against expanding coal export terminals to move more Powder River Basin coal from Wyoming to Asian markets.  This is only one step along the way from mine to market – coal trains derail far more often than you might think (in North Dakota, Michigan, and Nebraska, just this past month), loaded barges crash into bridges (just this week)terminals flood when severe storms come through, and ships even crash into the loading docks. Not counting carbon emissions from burning the coal, scientists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens along coal transport routes are worried that these cumulative impacts will harm public health, disrupt their daily lives, and negatively impact the ecological health of waterways along the path from mine to port.

Bulk transport by barge is cheaper and more fuel efficient than even freight rail, but extreme weather events exaggerated by climate change threaten its reliability. Last year’s drought crippled transport on the Mississippi River at the end of 2012, and without significant rain  river operators could face another low water crisis in 2013.

More to come including a leaky settling pond, an oil slick off Gulfport, and severe erosion resulting from ill-conceived oil spill response practices on Dauphin Island. Be sure to check out the photos of the whole flight on Flickr.

 
 

Gulf Monitoring Consortium: Mobile, Al - Gulfport, MS

Coal Export Terminal – Norfolk, Virginia

Every couple of weeks or so, the folks at DigitalGlobe/Geoeye publish a newsletter featuring various examples of recent high-resolution satellite imagery from around the world.  This is always an interesting, and often jaw-dropping, little publication to look through.  Among other things the latest edition features stunning imagery of Egyptian temples and offshore oil platforms, the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea, and this massive coal-export terminal near Norfolk,Virginia:

High-resolution satellite image of coal-export terminal in Virginia. Download the WorldView Report from DigitalGlobe to see a much bigger version of this image.

As the market for coal-fired electricity generation here in North America shrinks due to the rise of cheap natural gas-fired power (thanks to fracking for shale-gas), exports of coal from the US to overseas markets in Europe and Asia are sharply increasing.  This booming export market is propping up the continued destruction of Appalachian mountains by mountaintop removal mining. It’s also fueling a rash of coal-train derailments impacting health and safety in communities across the nation, some far removed from the coal-mining areas and the export terminals.

As if we needed more reasons to reduce our crippling dependence on fossil fuels.