Benzene Contamination Caused by Fracking. Or Something Else?

In Erie, Colorado, a local mom is understandably alarmed by the level of benzene — a known human carcinogen — in her 6-year-old son’s blood. There is plenty of drilling and fracking happening around Erie, including a wellpad 1,300′ to the west of the Erie elementary school that was built in 2012 and now hosts at least 8 producing wells. Prevailing winds in Erie typically blow from the west, putting the elementary school and the neighboring middle school directly downwind from this large drilling site, making the drilling operations an obvious suspect for the cause of this contamination. Slam dunk, right? 

Map showing locations of Erie, Colorado elementary and middle schools, and nearby features of interest noted in the text.

But the situation may not be that simple, as illustrated in the map above. The schools have a much closer neighbor — a gasoline station that’s right across the street, 250′ north of the elementary school, that has been there since at least 1993. When I worked for the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1990s, the problem of fuel oozing out of leaking underground storage tanks (yes, we called them LUSTs) at homes, gas stations, on farms, and other sites around the country was just beginning to get nationwide attention and prompted a suite of new rules from the EPA. Gas stations around the country were required to replace their old tanks. Many sites had plumes of gasoline floating on the local water table, sometimes migrating off the gas station property and into surrounding neighborhoods, sending fumes into basements and chemicals into water-supply wells. Gasoline contains benzene. Could kids at these schools be exposed to old gasoline contamination from this nearby filling station? Or to gasoline vapors being released today, as customers fill up their vehicles?
 

Looking south-southwest at gasoline filling station across the street from Erie Elementary School (just beyond the treeline).

There’s also a lumber mill 900′ south of the elementary school property line, and it too has been there since at least 1993. The mill probably operates diesel-powered equipment, and may even have its own diesel fuel storage tank onsite. Diesel fuel and fumes, and exhaust from diesel engines, all contain benzene. This site is not upwind from the school, so I would consider it a less-likely source of exposure for the kids there.
 
And I don’t know where this boy lives; maybe he’s grown up with a filling station or some other benzene-spewing industrial site nearby.  He may not even go to this school.  
 
None of this speculation — and it is pure speculation on our part — is intended to deflect attention from the increasingly well-documented health impacts that result from living near modern drilling and fracking operations. Everybody’s situation is different, and we just want to be sure we’re pointing our fingers at the right culprit so that A) we’ll be taken seriously, and B) the problem will be fixed. Sometimes that culprit may be oil and gas drilling. At other times it may be something that we’re overlooking.  

Lease Sale Cancellation near Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Conservation victories are often measured in terms of what did not happen. We measure them in terms of species that did not go extinct, of land clearing that did not take place, of anti-environmental legislation that did not become law.

This is another of those oblique victory stories about something that did not happen. If you’ve been following our work over the last year, you may have noticed that we’ve done some work monitoring the sale of oil and gas leases on public land in the vicinity of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico. Most recently, we posted about a lease sale that was scheduled for March 8, 2018. Some of the proposed lease parcels included in this sale fell extremely close to the boundary of a 10 mile buffer zone around the park that had previously been established in agreement with local Native American tribes to protect the viewshed, soundscape, and visitor experience to the park, as well as the numerous Ancestral Pueblo ruins and artifacts found throughout this historically significant region. Oil and gas drilling in these parcels had the potential to impact the UNESCO World Heritage status of the park.

This map shows the 8 leases (in red) which were scheduled for auction on March 8, 2018. Lease parcels which were previously tabled for further review (in orange). The boundaries of Chaco Culture National Historical Park are displayed in green.

On March 2, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced that the lease sale scheduled for March 8 would be deferred, to give the agency time to “complete an ongoing analysis of more than 5,000 cultural sites in the proposed leasing area.” Zinke cited questions about the sale that had been raised by public stakeholders, stating “We’re going to defer those leases until we do some cultural consultation.” It is important to note that these leases could come up for sale again in the future, but in the meantime, it is a comfort to enjoy this sale that did not happen. The deferral of oil and gas leases near Chaco Culture National Historical Park is an important reminder that public comment and protest have a very real power to help protect our public lands.

The Search for Sanchi

On January 6th, a tanker named the Sanchi collided with a cargo ship called the CF Crystal in the East China Sea causing a fire which killed nearly all of the crew and eventually sank the Sanchi. While the CF Crystal (which survived the collision) was only carrying grain, the Sanchi was carrying natural-gas condensate. This ultra-light oil is highly flammable which no doubt contributed to the blaze that prevented any rescue of the crew. Though there was originally hope it would evaporate quickly, there have been reports of it approaching the Japanese coastline. More persistent heavy bunker oil from the ship’s fuel tanks might also be leaking, compounding the problem.

Usually, we use radar imagery collected by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 satellite to track and monitor oil slicks, but, in this case, the area is not completely covered by Sentinel 1, and what imagery we have seen has been washed out by strong winds that make it difficult to see slicks. We’ve been relying on multispectral imagery from Sentinel 2, but heavy cloud cover in the area has made it difficult to locate the slick and monitor the cleanup and salvage operations.

These Sentinel 2 images do not show the slick as clearly as radar images would. Because we are working in the visible spectrum, we can only see a faint difference between the ocean and the lighter-than-usual slick. We’ve done our best to boost the contrast to highlight the slick, so the color of the water might seem a little brighter than usual.

Sentinel 2 image taken on January 18, showing vessels and slick around site of Sanchi wreck. We inferred the location of Sanchi based on the movements of response vessels, reconstructed from their AIS tracking broadcasts.

We can see two vessels which appear to be either spraying chemicals to disperse the slick or deploying oil-skimming gear, from booms extending from either side, as shown in this zoomed image:

Closeup view of the previous image, showing cleanup vessel in greater detail.

This Planet image, also taken on January 18, showing part of a larger area of slick east of the Sanchi.

Thanks to Planet and their fleet of Dove satellites, we can see that the slick extends further to the east. We are also able to see the vessels in more detail:

This collection of close-up shows views of oil spill response vessels in the area from the previous image.

We have been following the ships in the area via their Automatic Identification System (AIS) broadcasts, and have seen a variety of Chinese and Japanese vessels come and go, including the Koyo Maru and Koshiki, Japanese patrol boats; the Dong Lei 6, a cleanup tanker; the Shen Qian Hao, a Chinese diving vessel; the Hai Xun 01, a Chinese Patrol Boat; and the Dong Hai Jiu 101, a Chinese Search and Rescue boat.  Based on the movements of these vessels, we’ve inferred the location where the Sanchi likely sank and is the source of this ongoing spill.

We are doing our best to monitor this area as the clean-up continues.

Monitoring Update: Oil Rocks In The Caspian Sea

The Oil Rocks (Neft Daşları)  is a massive offshore oil complex in the Caspian Sea. The complex was constructed in the late 1940’s by the Soviet Union and has been producing oil consistently since 1951. The area around the Oil Rocks has experienced catastrophe in the past, when a fire at a nearby platform was responsible for the death of 32 workers and a particularly nasty oil spill in December 2015.

As part of SkyTruth’s Watchdog program, we keep an eye on locations such as this. Over the past 2 months, we estimate that over 380,000 gallons of oil have leaked into the Caspian Sea, based on our assumption that the slicks we are observing are 1 micron (1/1000th of a millimeter) thick.

Above: The European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 radar satellite captured this image on December 9th revealing a 306 square kilometer oil slick surrounding the Oil Rocks complex.

Above: Sentinel 1 collected this image of the Oil Rocks with a much smaller oil slick (23 square kilometers) on December 21, 2017.

Wind speeds in the Caspian Sea were as strong as 35 knots toward the south on December 21st and may have dispersed an additional volume of oil on the water’s surface.

Above: Sentinel 1 imagery from January 7, 2018 reveals the Oil Rocks leaking oil. The slicks cover a total area of 34 square kilometers.

Wind speeds were very low (between 0-15 knots) on January 7th heading southward, allowing the oil to form slicks around the complex.

And on January 13th, they were between 20-30 knots also heading southward. Similar to the image from December 21st, the high wind speeds may have contributed to dispersing the oil.

Above: The most recent Sentinel 1 image collected on January 19, 2018 reveals a massive oil slick emanating from the Oil Rocks complex, covering an area of 1094 square kilometers and containing at least 288,940 gallons of oil.

For context, 50,000 gallons of oil leaked from the SOCAR#10 platform during a fatal fire in 2015 mentioned above. And this massive Azerbaijani complex has a consistent leaky history on satellite imagery. Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan, the five countries surrounding the Caspian, all have efforts to tap into the Sea’s 44 billion barrel reserve. But this most recent satellite image from January 19th suggests a troubling future for the environment of the Caspian Sea.

Global Flaring Volume Map

Interactive Map Detects Gas Flaring Volume Worldwide

SkyTruth has built on NOAA’s work in estimating natural gas flaring volume by creating an interactive map showing individual flaring locations as identified by NOAA’s Earth Observation Group (EOG).

Flaring – the method of burning off the unwanted natural gas in massive, open flames – is a chronic practice in oil fields around the world. While flaring can be a safety measure used to avoid buildup of explosive gases, it often indicates the operator has concluded the cost of building a pipeline for the gas exceeds the value of the lost revenue. If this gas was captured or used to produce electricity on-site, this wasted energy could supplement the electrical grid without burning coal and ease the market demand that drives the drilling and fracking of shale-gas wells elsewhere.

Why are site-specific estimates important? Besides providing knowledge of the locations and magnitudes of greenhouse gas emissions, gas flaring has been shown to affect wildlife, public health, and even agriculture negatively.

SkyTruth’s map makes site data available over virtually any Area of Interest (AOI). As of November 2017, the dataset includes annual estimates for years 2012 through 2016.

Global Flaring Volume Map

With a few clicks, the SkyTruth map lets you:

  • Visually see the location of each flaring site
  • Click for details from the EOG dataset
  • Identify custom Area of Interests (AOI) by either drawing on the map, selecting a range of preloaded AOIs (Country, State, County, Province, Federal Lands), or uploading your own GeoJSON file
  • Download flaring data that falls within any AOI

You can view this map yourself at https://viirs.skytruth.org/apps/heatmap/flarevolume.html.

A description of how EOG estimates flaring volume is detailed in this paper. Details of the nightfire algorithm that detects hot sources from the VIIRS instrument can be found in this paper.

 

Harvey’s Environmental Impact, a Look at Flooded Petrochemical Sites

Since Hurricane Harvey made landfall last month, we continued to analyze satellite imagery along the middle of the Texas Gulf Coast for environmental impacts. The first in a series of catastrophic storms, Harvey struck the heart of the U.S. petrochemical industry, leading to widespread flooding of oil and gas infrastructure, toxic chemical spills and adverse short and long-term public health risks from air and water pollution. We encourage citizens to report pollution incidents and have made the SkyTruth Spill Tracker available on an ongoing basis for this purpose. Harvey’s environmental toll is significant. In addition to the widely reported explosions at the Arkema plant,  

  • fifty-five refineries and petrochemical plants emitted 5.8 million pounds of air pollutants
  • oil and gas operators reported crude oil, gasoline, saltwater and other contaminants spilled from wells, pipelines and storage tanks into coastal or inland water totaling 568,000 gallons.

The images below show some examples we found that reveal flooded oil and gas infrastructure in the impacted area.

1. PlanetScope imagery shows flooded oil and gas infrastructure along US-90 between Denvers and Nome. It is unclear whether the large rectangular pond in the upper left corner of the imagery is connected to the nearby drilling infrastructure. A small pond at 30°01’36.7″N 94°30’07.5″W adjacent to a well pad doesn’t appear to have a liner, and may be a stormwater runoff impoundment. View a larger version of the slider here.

This image shows a zoomed-in view of the oil and gas infrastructure from the previous slider, with the location of possible stormwater runoff impoundment identified.

2. Imagery from Planet’s RapidEye 3 satellite shows a flooded well pad and fluid impoundment along the Guadalupe River near Hochheim. View a larger version of the slider here.

3. PlanetScope imagery shows flooded oil & gas infrastructure between Smithers Lake and the Brazos River southwest of Houston. View a larger version of the slider here.

The following images show flooded oil storage tanks identified in the flooded area between Smithers Lake and the Brazos River, visualized above:


4. Imagery from Planet’s RapidEye 2 and RapidEye 5 satellites shows flooded petrochemical storage tanks in Galena Park operated by Magellan Midstream Partners. According to a National Response Center report, close to half a million gallons of “gasoline type product” were discharged at this site. View a larger version of the slider here.

Good News

We see fewer large oil spills compared with the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, where operators reported more than 9 million gallons of oil spilled from storm-damaged oil storage tanks and offshore platforms and pipelines.

Bad News

We’re continuing to see major air pollution impacts from storm-impacted refineries and other chemical plants, some surrounded by densely populated residential areas; and inland and coastal flooding submerging drilling sites and drilling-related fluid impoundments, toppling unsecured tanks and adding a wide range of chemicals to the floodwaters inundating people’s homes, schools and businesses. As sea level steadily rises, and the warming atmosphere subjects some areas to stronger storms and heavier rainfall events, these problems are likely to get worse. Moving oil and gas infrastructure out of high-risk flood zones would seem to be a common sense action to mitigate at least some of this threat.

 

Harvey Spill Tracker

New Citizen Pollution Reporting Tool, Now Available for Hurricanes

We’ve launched the SkyTruth Spill Tracker, a map-based tool to allow citizens on the ground in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean to quickly report oil and hazardous waste spills and other pollution incidents as a result of the storms.  

You can access the Tracker via mobile or desktop browsers at SkyTruthSpillTracker.org, or via the Ushahidi mobile app

Pollution Spill Tracker

Submit your report at SkyTruthSpillTracker.org

We operated a similar tool, the Gulf Oil Spill Tracker, during and after the BP oil spill in the Gulf in 2010.  We also helped the Louisiana Bucket Brigade launch their iWitness Pollution Map. If you’re reporting pollution in Louisiana, you might prefer to use the iWitness map.

How to Submit a Report

Click the + symbol in the upper left corner of the map to report oil, chemical or hazardous waste spills. Follow the prompts to enter a brief description of what you see. If you are able, please upload a photo or video showing the incident and hit submit.

A technology-driven non-profit with a mission to protect the environment by making more of it visible, SkyTruth launched this reporting tool to enable citizens to report environmental pollution as a result of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Read more about related work after the BP oil spill, the Taylor Energy oil spill, and Hurricane Katrina.

We believe if people can easily communicate their needs, organizations and governments can more effectively respond. Federal and state authorities will be able to download the reports in a standard *.csv format, readable by any spreadsheet or database software.

Contact Us

With your help, the SkyTruthSpillTracker should prove to be a useful resource for aiding the response and recovery efforts throughout the U.S. and the Caribbean. We encourage everyone impacted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma to use the tracker. We are also interested in coordinating with other groups organizing similar pollution reporting efforts on the ground. Please email suggestions to us at info@skytruth.org.