POOLESVILLE, Md. – (AP) – When environmentalist Brent Walls saw a milky-white substance in a stream flowing through a rural part of central Pennsylvania, he suspected the nearby rock mine was breaking the law.
Recent rains had filled the ponds at the mine, which allow sediment to settle out of the water, but Walls couldn’t get a peek easily because they were surrounded by private property. To quickly investigate and prevent trespassing, Walls used his drone to capture images of the area.
“That’s when I found the illegal discharge,” he said. The photo of the cloudy liquid pouring into the creek provided evidence Walls used to accuse Specialty Granules LLC of violating the Clean Water Act.
Fifty years after this landmark law was signed, drones give environmentalists a new tool to catch wrongdoing where it’s difficult to detect or expensive to find, although their use to investigate polluters is still fairly rare, Walls said.
He wants them 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 groups. The nonprofit wants activists from across the country to know how to use the technology to tell stories and gather evidence that companies are polluting rivers and streams.
The Clean Water Act allows individuals — not just federal officials — to enforce the law. But citizens who want to use drones to gather evidence must have a federally issued pilot’s certificate and navigate layers of federal, state, and local regulations.
Walls is the Upper Potomac Riverkeeper and is part of a Riverkeeper network that has used drones in a handful of other cases to gather evidence of pollution and threaten lawsuits if they are not happy with how companies are responding to allegations. For example, drones were used to investigate a West Virginia coal operation that allegedly dumped coal tailings into a nearby river. According to Walls, drone footage helped persuade the company to clean up the premises.
On a pleasant, slightly windy day in June, Walls held a personal training session near the fourth hole of the Bretton Woods golf course right on the Potomac River in Maryland.
Coast Carolina’s Waccamaw Riverkeeper Cara Schildtknecht said it’s great to finally be able to pilot the drone. “We trained for months,” she said at the face-to-face training session with three other clean water advocates.
Schildtknecht had completed Walls’ online courses and passed the exam for her pilot’s license. When she arrived, she peeled the stickers off her drone. It was the first time she flew one.
Walls helped the group ensure their controllers were properly connected to their drones before each had a chance to pilot an approximately 10-minute practice flight.
Schildtknecht said a drone will help her see areas in her catchment area that are difficult to reach by boat, record flooding and find polluters. The view from above, she said, “is a game changer,” one that previously required paying a pilot for a manned flight.
“We have certain areas that we know could be of concern that we would like to review,” she said.
Technological advances have contributed to the growth of the drone market. Miriam McNabb, editor-in-chief of Dronelife magazine, said drones are now easier to fly, take better pictures and can be programmed to automatically poll and track changes over time.
While drone prices can vary widely, the drones purchased through grants cost around $2,000 for the newly trained activists, Walls said.
After Walls Specialty Granules made its allegations in 2019, the company halted discharges through the pipe identified by the drone 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 imagery helped identify discharges of non-toxic stormwater and that the company uses drones in its own operations. But McClure did not welcome the surprise inspection.
“Unplanned drone overflights can create a distraction and potential accident for workers operating heavy machinery,” McClure said.
The ubiquity of drones capturing video has also raised privacy concerns. Cam Ward, a former Alabama state senator who is now director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, sponsored a bill in 2020 to limit the use of drones over “critical infrastructure,” a term meaning mines, refineries, pipelines, and Natural gas facilities included.
“Some privacy has to be expected,” he said.
A local environmental group that used a drone in Alabama to record discharges from an abandoned mine site argued that the 2020 law would prevent activists from keeping an eye on misbehaving companies.
Ward said he was concerned about environmentalists sabotaging vital facilities. To keep websites safe and protect the privacy of business owners, the use of drones should be restricted, although finding the right balance is “incredibly complex”. His calculation didn’t add up.
Scientists and industry are already using drones extensively to monitor whales, count trees and inspect cell towers. But even some environmental groups are skeptical of its widespread use to study water pollution. Not only do pilots need to be state certified, but the rules for operating drones differ by location — the Federal Aviation Administration isn’t the only agency setting the rules.
“It’s a patchwork of inconsistent, inconsistent, local, state and federal regulations in our area,” said DJ Gerken, program director at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which works with partners who use drones. Navigating this patchwork of rules is important to ensure evidence is admissible in court.
Walls said his training is designed to help people navigate the rules and pass the FAA test. He teaches how to identify restricted airspace, avoid structures and operate safely. For example, to protect privacy, pilots are instructed to create flight plans that avoid residential properties.
Anastasia Telesetsky, a professor of environmental law at California Polytechnic State University, called drones a handy tool for finding pollution that was out of sight.
“There are many groups that know there is a problem but have limited resources with which to force regulators to do their jobs,” she said.
Martin Lively is the Grand Riverkeeper of Northeast Oklahoma. In his area is a former mining site bad enough to make it onto the federal Superfund list.
“It’s extremely polluted with lead, zinc, arsenic, cadmium, manganese,” he said. “And all of that flows into my watershed.”
Because of the pollution, the river is already being tested regularly. But a drone goes one step further and helps, for example, to determine whether cleaned plots of land could be recontaminated in the event of flooding.
He says a drone is a storytelling tool that can capture powerful images.
“It’s a tool that should never be underestimated in litigation,” he said.
Phillis reported from St. Louis.
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