SkyTruth Maps Impoundments Using Aerial Photos

Washington PA Observer Reporter
20 September 2014
By Emily Petsko, Staff writer

Attempting to identify every Marcellus Shale impoundment in Washington and Greene counties is an arduous – perhaps impossible – task for the average citizen to undertake.

The Department of Environmental Protection keeps no map or comprehensive list of every pond used to store fresh or wastewater for fracking operations in Pennsylvania. Even township officials sometimes are unsure of the exact location of impoundments within their borders; they're typically hidden from plain view in wooded and rural areas.

But some independent groups have been filling in the gaps. One of those is SkyTruth, a nonprofit organization established in 2002 that uses aerial imagery and crowdsourcing to identify impoundments.

The group uses images provided by the National Agricultural Imagery Program to identify large ponds of water that could be shale impoundments. Then, using crowdsourcing, SkyTruth asks local residents to verify what they see on-site and whether it's related to the drilling industry.

David Manthos, communications director, said they easily can get this information by crowdsourcing, rather than having to dig through “old, musty records” that may be incomplete at government agencies.

Manthos said the impoundments are added to mapping software once they are identified by about 10 people. The date that the impoundment first appeared in aerial images and the size of the impoundment are included on the map.

In turn, SkyTruth is providing its findings to Johns Hopkins University researchers, who are studying potential health effects related to industry activity.

DEP spokesman John Poister said the department has a list of every centralized impoundment but cannot easily produce an overarching list including smaller, on-site impoundments – located on well pads – because they are classified differently.

Perhaps the only way to determine where each on-site impoundment is located is by pulling files containing erosion and sedimentation permits in the DEP's regional office in Pittsburgh.

Poister said he has not heard of SkyTruth, but the DEP strongly recommends FracTracker Alliance, a similar organization that maps gas wells, compressor stations and pits.

“We use FracTracker ourselves, and we strongly believe that they do an exceptional job of locating these impoundments and keeping a record of them,” Poister said. “In fact, we often have steered reporters to FracTracker.”

SkyTruth has mapped Pennsylvania impoundments in 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2013. What it has found is that the impoundments have grown both in size and number.

According to SkyTruth data, there were only 11 impoundments in Pennsylvania in 2005, and the average area of an impoundment was about 610 square meters. In 2013, SkyTruth identified 529 impoundments, with an average area of about 7,550 square meters.

Brian Schwartz, senior investigator of the Geisinger Center for Health Research at Johns Hopkins University, said his agency reached out to SkyTruth for impoundment data because previous reviews at the DEP were tedious. Schwartz said researchers scanned 5,000 documents on compressor stations at DEP offices, and only about half of the files they reviewed for wells listed dates when fracking began.

Schwartz and his team are reviewing health data – primarily respiratory and reproductive outcomes – for 44,000 primary care patients in Pennsylvania between 2001 and 2013. Similar to a recent Yale study, the group will compare health data with the location of industry infrastructure and “determine if we can conclude that one is related to the other,” Schwartz said.

He said they are particularly interested in looking at potential volatile organic compounds released into the air from the impoundments.

“Pennsylvania is really a very, very important state to study – one of the most rapid of the states to develop this industry,” Schwartz said. “What's more important about Pennsylvania is that lots of people live in the counties where this (activity) is going on.”