New Spill Tracker Enlists Crowd to Help Monitor Pollution After Hurricanes

The SkyTruth Spill Tracker collects pollution reports in one place, and makes the information available to the public as well as the relevant authorities.

After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, a nonprofit organization that uses satellite imagery to monitor the environment launched a tool for citizens to report pollution caused by flooding. Built on the crowdmapping platform Ushahidi, the Harvey Spill Tracker maps reports of oil, chemical, or hazardous waste spills and other incidents based on satellite images, eyewitness accounts, and National Response Center alerts. Later today the organization will release an updated version that expands the region covered to parts of the country impacted by Hurricane Irma.

The outpouring of volunteer support for Houston after the city was inundated by floodwaters was mostly in the form of emergency response and recovery—putting residents stranded in their homes in touch with rescuers, and informing them about nearby shelters. Most recently, those volunteers have been in the spotlight for repurposing tools built to respond to Harvey for Miami and other parts of Florida affected by Hurricane Irma. But even though the nation’s collective attention span has shifted to the southeast, the clean-up of south Texas has only just begun.

Founded by a geologist named John Amos in 2001, SkyTruth is best known as the organization that first challenged BP’s estimate of the oil spill after the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded in 2010. Using satellite images, the SkyTruth team calculated that the rate of flow from the leak was five to 25 times more than BP was reporting. In addition to the ongoing monitoring of oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, the organization also keeps an eye on mountaintop removal in Appalachia. For years, SkyTruth also used satellite images to blow the whistle on illegal fishing, but one month ago Global Fishing Watch was spun out as an independent project.

The Harvey Spill Tracker—or SkyTruth Spill Tracker, as they have renamed it after expanding to other parts of the country—is similar to the Gulf Oil Spill Tracker SkyTruth launched in 2010 and operated until April of this year, when the team decided a dedicated tracker for the Deepwater Horizon spill was no longer necessary. It collects pollution reports in one place, and makes the information available to the public as well as the relevant authorities.

“We believe if people can easily communicate their needs, organizations and governments can more effectively respond,” Amos wrote in a blog post announcing the launch. “We have notified the Texas Railroad Commission about the site, and they (like any user) will be able to download the reports in a standard *.csv format, readable by any spreadsheet or database software. With your help, this should prove to be a useful resource for aiding the response and recovery efforts.”

Tracey Foster, SkyTruth’s communications director, told Civicist that it is important to keep environmental issues visible even when short-term cleanup and recovery seems more urgent.

“It’s an aspect that can sometimes get missed,” Foster said. “There’s more emphasis than ever before on the human impact of natural disasters but public attention is so short, and everyone is thinking about Irma and nobody’s thinking about the toxic stew that people are wading through after Harvey.”

Photo: Army National Guard by Lt. Zachary West

There has already been some excellent coverage of some of the environmental hazards in Houston after Harvey—including the Associated Press’s survey of Superfund sites—but these issues will need to be revisited again and again in the future to ensure proper cleanup. Foster said SkyTruth’s role is to keep the spotlight on the long-term effects “as best we can.”

The organization has a small cadre of 571 volunteers who are notified when there are opportunities for chipping in on crowdsourced projects, like scanning satellite images of the ocean for the tell-tale signs of an oil slick, but Foster said Amos would like to grow that base into “a SkyTruthing movement where citizen scientists are using our platform to report and share information.”

Scott Eustis, a coastal wetland specialist with the Gulf Restoration Network, has also been monitoring the environmental situation in Texas. He went flying last Monday over Beaumont and Port Arthur, TX, and on Saturday over Houston to look for signs of pollution, and planned to report any oil sheens or other signs to the Harvey Spill Tracker.

Eustis told Civicist that he hopes citizen science can help repair some of the environmental injustices that have occurred in Houston and other parts of Texas. He pointed out that the majority of oil refineries in the area are located in or near primarily poor, minority communities, and those communities will bear the brunt of the pollution.

“Citizen science gives us an opportunity to see that and recognize it and work through a lens of environmental justice,” Eustis said. “It’s not just we’re going to have 2,000 reports. It’s not just quantity—it’s that you have a whole new quality. You’re going to have reports from people who have been silenced in the past.”

Although there are only 25 reports to date, if platforms like this can elevate any voices that haven’t been previously heard, the creators will be on the verge of accomplishing their lofty goals.