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
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
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
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
“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