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Advocacy Group Applies for Google Project

Google announced a community outreach program that will provide updated satellite imagery for projects that “save lives, protect the environment, promote education, and positively impact humanity.”

by Marcus Constantino, Charleston Daily Mail (TNS) / October 28, 2014

Environmental advocacy groups that are keeping tabs on mountaintop removal mining operations in West Virginia may soon have a new set of watchful eyes more than 200 miles above Earth.

Google announced a community outreach program called Skybox for Good at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters Thursday. Julian Mann, Skybox co-founder and Developer Advocate for Google Earth Outreach, said the program will provide updated satellite imagery for projects that “save lives, protect the environment, promote education, and positively impact humanity.”

Shepherdstown-based SkyTruth and Boone, N.C.-based Appalachian Voices have acquired recent satellite images of three mountaintop removal mines in West Virginia: the Red Fox mine in McDowell County, the Hobet mine in Boone County and the KD #2 mine in Kanawha County. The surface mines were photographed on Oct. 2 by Google’s SkySat 1 and SkySat 2 satellites, which orbit about 280 miles above Earth. Google acquired commercial satellite photography firm Skybox for $500 million in June to provide imagery for its Google Maps service and improve Internet access and disaster relief in the future.

David Manthos, communications director for SkyTruth, said the satellite imagery indicates Keystone Coal is working within its permit for the KD #2 mine, but the photos show just how close the mine is to Kanawha State Forest and its popular trails.

“I think the proximity to Kanawha State Forest and just being able to put an image with hearing people talk about how close it is to the trails and the park — being able to put an image with that is the most remarkable thing,” Manthos said.

Founded by geologist John Amos in 2001, SkyTruth has studied the environmental impacts on natural gas drilling, oil drilling and strip mining through aerial and satellite imagery. In 2010, SkyTruth partnered with Florida State University to study aerial images of the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and calculated that five to 25 times more oil had spilled into the Gulf than BP had reported.

Manthos said acquiring up-to-date imagery of sites of interest from commercial satellites can cost thousands of dollars per flyover, and airplane flyovers are also cost-prohibitive for regular monitoring. He said the Skybox for Good project has the potential to be a game-changer for environmental watchdogs.

“It’s going to allow more frequent and higher resolution imagery of a broad range of environmental issues, mountaintop removal being a big one of those issues,” Manthos said.

“Over time, it would allow the kind of imagery you usually have to wait several years in-between for the Department of Agriculture to fly imagery at this resolution, or to spend thousands of dollars doing this kind of monitoring. This technology offers potential for major drop in the price for doing regular monitoring of environmental sites of interest.”

Manthos and Matthew F. Wasson, Director of Programs for Appalachian Voices, both attended Geo for Good User Summit in Mountain View over the weekend, where the Skybox for Good project was announced. Wasson said Google will choose five groups to partner with at first for the Skybox for Good project, and Appalachian Voices will likely be partnering with other environmental organizations to apply for the partnership.

Wasson said a partnership between Appalachian Voices and Google for satellite imagery would enable environmental advocates to check on mining operations daily, or check on a citizen complaint of possible illegal activity with the click of a mouse.

“You can’t schedule a flight every time you want to monitor what’s happening at these mine sites,” Wasson said. “It’s just very resource-intensive to do that. So often, we hear complaints from people about what coal companies are doing and there’s just no good way for us to be able to monitor what’s happening, and the state agencies have been very reticent to allow the kind of citizen inspections that we believe we are entitled to under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

“What this will allow us to do, I hope, is when we hear a complaint or are informed of possible illegal activities by companies, we would be able to fairly quickly schedule a high-resolution satellite image to be obtained from the specific location and then right here in the office we would be able to look pretty closely and evaluate whether it’s something that we would want to pursue or if we need to try to schedule a citizens’ inspection,” Wasson said.

Wasson requested imagery of the Red Fox and Hobet surface mines as part of Skybox for Good’s trial run because there had been numerous citizen complaints about each mine. Using the satellite imagery, Wasson was able to locate a specific area of concern at the Red Fox mine that could be leading to increased runoff in the valleys below.

“There are very extensive mining activities on previous fill that I have strong questions about whether (the mine’s permits) are sufficient to handle the previous mining and the new mining on top of that,” Wasson said. “We’re going to need a mine engineer to make the case on that.”

As Google launches more satellites, Wasson said there will be even more possibilities for environmental analysts. Six more SkySats are scheduled to go into orbit in 2015, and ultimately, the Skybox team hopes to have a constellation of 24 imaging satellites over Earth that would provide images of a given location five to 10 times per day.

“We’re hoping that it could be useful for things like crisis response when we have spills like the spill at the Kanawha Eagle plant back in February of this year or other types of environmental disasters like that,” Wasson said. “We’re hoping to have some sort of arrangement when we could very quickly obtain imagery maybe within as much as a 24-hour time scale to better be able to evaluate what’s going on and target our resources.”

Manthos hopes to use frequently updated satellite images to keep track of the hydraulic fracturing boom and its impacts on the environment. Manthos was able to obtain satellite imagery of a well site near Canton, Ohio, during a test run for Skybox for Good and is evaluating the imagery to evaluate the site’s total impact on the area around it.

“That will enable us to notice when new well pads and infrastructure have been developed,” Manthos said. “Obviously, we will not be able to see from the satellite exactly when the chemicals go into the ground but we will be able to see when a field or a forest is cleared to put in the gravel pad and the road and the infrastructure needed for a new well. We’ll be able to see when that change occurs and collect high-resolution imagery and see how close that is to houses and natural features of interest and measure, cumulatively, the change to the landscape.

“It’s not just the individual number of acres of trees that are cleared for the wellpad; it’s all the fragmentation from the wells, roads, pipelines, infrastructure, processing locations — all that infrastructure has a cumulative impact and the satellite imagery from SkyBox will help us to assess that,” Manthos said.

Wasson said Google will likely choose its five partners for the Skybox for Good beta by the end of 2014. All images acquired through the program are Creative Commons-licensed and free to view and republish.

©2014 the Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, W.Va.)

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