— Local non-profit believes that better information about the impacts of human activity on the environment will convince more people to move towards protecting it.

A major tool in tracking the impact of mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR) will soon be available—and is being created by Jefferson County’s own SkyTruth.

The Shepherdstown-based nonprofit, whose mission is “to protect the environment by making more of it visible,” has created annual maps of “the footprint of MTR,” according to Program Coordinator David Manthos.

Mountaintop removal mining is literally what it sounds like, the practice of removing the top of a mountain in order to extract nearly all of the coal contained within. Debris is often dumped in valleys or depressions near the site. This method of mining is used throughout the Appalachian coalfields of West Virginia, as well as in Kentucky, Virginia, and other states.

“The brute-force efficiency of MTR mining is rearranging the Appalachian landscape, flattening ridges, and filling valleys with shattered waste rock,” Manthos said. Several studies, to which SkyTruth has contributed, have found “… serious public and ecological health impacts—from increased incidence of birth defects and depression to greater mobilization of drinking water contaminants.”

Appalachian Voices, an organization dedicated to protecting the environment of southern and central Appalachia, and Duke University, are working in conjunction with SkyTruth, and will assist in the publication of the project upon completion, which Manthos projects to be toward the end of this year.

“We discovered no state or federal agencies had a comprehensive map of the actual, on-the-ground impacts of this brutally efficient form of mining,” he said.

He explained that SkyTruth has taken “Google cloud computing and Landsat imagery from the 1980s through the present” to populate the datasets, which will assist researchers and environmental scientists in gaining a better picture of the effects of the practice of MTR mining.

“This project is quintessentially SkyTruth,” Manthos assured—further pointing out that the use of “satellite imagery to directly produce new data about environmental impacts” directly fits the mission of the group.

In the past, SkyTruth had complied similar datasets on a decade-by-decade basis, but hadn’t refined the information to offer a year-by-year tracker.

“These [decade-by-decade] datasets have proven their worth, contributing to at least six peer-reviewed papers on the public and environmental health impacts of MTR,” Manthos explained—while adding that the success of the previous project made the decision to create a year-by-year version a no-brainer.

SkyTruth hopes datasets such as these will enable scientists to determine if MTR mining has a direct impact upon natural disasters like the flooding which occurred in West Virginia this summer.

“Research conducted so far suggests that MTR can contribute to greater flooding during intense rainfall events,” states a July blog post on SkyTruth’s website. The absence of plants and dirt, which can absorb excess water, found in areas where MTR mining has occurred, makes it seem “logical that MTR mining would contribute to more intense” flooding.

The organization readily admits, though, that without further empirical data, much like that which they are producing, conclusive assertions about the impact of MTR mining in flooded areas remain educated speculation.

Once published, the datasets will be available to anyone who wishes to view them on SkyTruth’s website. “By releasing the data, we are empowering people to become better informed about what is going on in their state and environment,” said Manthos.

Photo ©JW Randolph

SkyTruth: A Brief History

Founded in 2002 by geologist John Amos, SkyTruth has quickly grown into a leading environmental non-profit with over a dozen employees, as well as several interns.

The group’s early work included the use of satellite and aerial imagery to study the landscape impacts of natural gas drilling on the Rocky Mountains, to reveal commercial fishing vessels “fishing the line” around marine protected areas, and to show the growth of strip mining for coal and other minerals around the United States.

In 2010, SkyTruth battled BP to question the rate of oil escaping into the Gulf of Mexico. They used images from satellites to determine that the amount of oil going into the water was many times higher than reported by BP.

Four years later, 2014 saw the launch of the group’s Global Fishing Watch initiative, which tracks when and where commercial fishing occurs around the world. This project is designed to prevent overfishing of the Earth’s waters.

Since the beginning, SkyTruth has believed that the information they provide can be used not only as a source of valuable scientific data on environmental change, but also as a powerful tool for communicating these changes to the public. The challenge is to deliver this information to the public in as objective a way as possible, so they can see it for themselves, and then decide.

“One obvious conclusion you can draw from SkyTruth is that you’re never too small to make a difference,” said Amos. He left the for-profit world and started SkyTruth after becoming increasingly concerned by mounting evidence of human-caused changes to landscapes and ecosystems around the world. “Our mission is to grow to the point where we can instigate an international movement of ‘skytruthing,’ where people all over the world will have the tools and data at their fingertips to research areas and issues they’re concerned about. And then we want to show them how to share it—with not only their own audience, but with us. It’s a big world. People are busy. We want people to provide us, and each other, with information about what’s going on in the places they care about.”

Expansion of SkyTruth, however, means a greater emphasis on remaining objective as they grow in both form and function. Manthos understands the precarious nature of this juggling act of sorts. “We’ve certainly grown—from pretty basic imagery analysis to bigger, broader things—to say ‘here’s what we see,’ which allows people around the world a chance to see what’s going on in their own backyards, and then make decisions as to how they feel about it.”

That said, you won’t see SkyTruth at rallies, but you will see them providing information that delivers the facts. “The goal is to create an awareness,” he added. “We’re not going to pass a value judgment on behalf of SkyTruth. We’re showing the public that ‘this is the size of the oil spill, or the slurry pond breach, or the MTR,’ and so on. What the viewer decides to do with that information is up to them.” By remaining relatively quiet about advocacy, SkyTruth is able to share more data with a broader range of people and organizations. “Until you start quantifying certain types of information for people, it remains an abstract concept, and it’s subject to the whims of left versus right—intense partisanship. But if you provide an image, and say this is what we see, and here’s the data derived from it, then it becomes a more credible tool for influencing decisions, and even policy.”

Amos echoes the notion, emphasizing an opportunity to counter the minutiae of our technological lives with information that doesn’t scold its audience, but certainly makes them think. “We’re not calling on people to oppose stuff as much as we’re calling on people to pay attention. Whatever stance they take on an issue, they have the chance to pay attention to it, because they can see it.”

He stresses that if people have the ability to see what is happening to the places they care about, some of them are going to educate themselves and the ones around them. “The problem is that people are so quick to judge and criticize based on very little information these days—it’s a real weakness. So we want to provide the type of information that allows people to think for themselves. Are we for the environment? Yes. We believe that better information about the impacts of human activity on the environment will convince more people to make choices that will help in protecting it. But we’re not perfect, and we understand that there are two sides to a story.”

Amos knows that, ultimately, SkyTruth is far more valuable in the long run if the public understands that they’re not pursuing an agenda with their information. “We’re here as a resource to engage and empower them. We have a dog in the fight, yes, but no one listens if you’re just making noise.”

— For more information, check out SkyTruth.org and find SkyTruth on Facebook.


(Featured image: The team behind the data—left to right: Christian Thomas, David Manthos, Paul Woods, Vaida Lilionyte, and John Amos)

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