Enviros trains drone pilots to find and track pollution

POOLESVILLE, Md. (AP) – When environmentalist Brent Walls saw a milky white substance in a stream flowing through a rural area of ​​central Pennsylvania, he suspected a nearby rock mine was breaking the law.

The recent rains had filled the ponds in the mine allowing sediment to settle out of the water, but Walls could not easily take a look because they were surrounded by private property. To quickly investigate and avoid the breach, Walls captured images of the area with his drone.

“Then I found the illegal rejection,” he said. The photo of the cloudy liquid flowing into the creek provided evidence that the Walls used to accuse Specialty Granules LLC of violating the Clean Water Act.

Fifty years after the signing of the landmark legislation, drones give environmentalists a new tool to record illegalities where they are difficult to see or expensive to find, although their use to investigate pollutants is still quite rare. said Walls.

Would like to be used more often. With the help of a grant, he trains drone pilots for the Waterkeeper Alliance, a global network of clean water teams. The nonprofit wants activists across the country to know how to use storytelling technology and gather evidence that companies are polluting rivers and streams.

The Clean Water Act allows individuals – not just federal officials – to enforce the law. However, citizens who want to use drones to gather evidence must have a federal pilot certificate and navigate to federal, state and local regulations.

Walls is the Upper Potomac Riverkeeper and part of a river network that has used drones on a handful of other occasions to collect pollution and threaten lawsuits if they are not satisfied with the way companies respond to the allegations. Drones were used, for example, to investigate a coal operation in West Virginia that allegedly dumped coal debris into a nearby river. Walls said drone footage helped the company clean up the site.

On a pleasant, slightly stormy June day, Walls conducted a personal training session near the fourth hole of Bretton Woods Golf Course just off the Potomac River in Maryland.

Cara Schildtknecht, guardian of the Waccamaw River off the coast of Carolina, said it was awesome that we were finally able to pilot the drone. “We have been trained to do this for months,” he said in personal training with three other clean water advocates.

Schildtknecht had taken the Walls online course and passed her pilot certification test. When she arrived, she removed the stickers from her drone. It was her first time flying.

Walls helped the team ensure that their controllers were properly connected to their drones before anyone had a chance to pilot a practical flight for about 10 minutes.

Schildtknecht said a drone would help her see areas in her catchment that are difficult to reach by boat, record floods and find pollutants. The view from above said “it’s a game change”, something that previously required a pilot to pay for a manned flight.

“We have some areas that we know may be of concern and that we want to control,” he said.

Technological developments have helped to develop the drone market. Miriam McNabb, editor-in-chief of the commercial edition of Dronelife, said drones are now easier to fly, capture better images and can be programmed to automatically conduct surveys and track changes over time.

While drone prices can vary widely, drones purchased with a grant for newly trained activists cost about $ 2,000, Walls said.

After Walls presented his claims to Specialty Granules in 2019, the company stopped evacuating through the pipe the drone had located and installed a filtration system that improved water quality.

Matthew McClure, vice president of operations at Specialty Granules, said in a statement that the drone images helped detect non-toxic rainwater discharge and that the company was using drones in its operations. But McClure did not welcome the surprise inspection.

“Unplanned drone overflights can be a distraction and potential accidents to employees operating heavy machinery,” McClure said.

The ubiquitous presence of video drones has also raised privacy concerns. Cam Ward, a former Alabama state senator who is now director of the Alabama Office of Lands and Parliaments, backed a bill in 2020 to limit drone use in “critical infrastructure,” a term that included mines, refineries, pipelines and facilities. natural gas.

“There must be some expectation of privacy,” he said.

A local environmental team that used a drone in Alabama to record dumping from an abandoned mine has argued that the 2020 bill would prevent activists from monitoring companies that misbehave.

Ward said he was concerned about environmentalists sabotaging important facilities. To keep the sites safe and to protect the privacy of business owners, he said there should be limits to the use of drones, although finding the right balance is “incredibly complicated”. His account did not pass.

Scientists and industry are already widely developing drones to track whales, count trees and inspect cell towers. But even some environmental groups are skeptical of their widespread use to investigate water pollution. Not only do pilots need to be federally certified, but the rules for using a drone vary by location – the Federal Aviation Administration is not the only service that sets the rules.

“It’s a patchwork of unequal, inconsistent, local, state and federal regulations across our region,” said DJ Gerken, program director at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which works with partners using drones. Navigating this patchwork of rules is important to ensure that the evidence is admissible in court.

Walls said his training is intended to help people navigate the rules and pass the FAA test. It teaches how to recognize limited airspace, avoid construction and operate safely. For privacy, for example, pilots are required to make flight plans that avoid homes.

Anastasia Telesetsky, a professor of environmental law at California State University, described drones as a handy tool for detecting pollution that was not visible.

“There are many groups that know there is a problem, but are limited to the tools they can use to force regulators to do their job,” he said.

Martin Lively is the Grand Riverkeeper in Northeast Oklahoma. A former mining site that is bad enough to make the list of federal Superfunds is located in its area.

“It is highly contaminated with lead, zinc, arsenic, cadmium, manganese,” he said. “And all this is flowing in my basin.”

Due to the pollution, the river is already checked regularly. But a drone goes a step further, helping to determine, for example, whether the cleared properties might be re-infected when it floods.

He says a drone is a narrative tool that can capture powerful images.

“This is a tool that should never be underestimated in litigation,” he said.


Phyllis reported from St. Louis.


The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation to cover water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all AP environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

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