Enviros trains drone pilots to find and chase pollution | business news

By MICHAEL PHILLIS and JULIO CORTEZ, Associated Press

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

Recent rains had filled the mine’s ponds that allow sediment to settle out of the water, but Walls couldn’t easily get a look because they were surrounded by private property. To quickly investigate and prevent trespassing, Walls captured footage of the area with his drone.

“That’s when I found the illicit download,” he said. The photo of the cloudy liquid flowing into the creek provided evidence that Walls used to charge Specialty Granules LLC with violating the Clean Water Act.

Fifty years after that landmark legislation was enacted, drones give environmentalists a new tool to capture irregularities where they’re hard to see or expensive to find, though their use to investigate polluters is still fairly rare, Walls said.

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He would like 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 organization wants activists across the country to know how to use technology to tell stories and collect evidence that companies are polluting rivers and streams.

The Clean Water Act allows people, not just federal officials, to enforce the law. But citizens who want to use drones to collect evidence must have a pilot’s certificate issued by the federal government and navigate layers of federal, state and local rules.

Walls is the guardian of the Upper Potomac River and part of a network of river guardians that has used drones in a handful of other cases to collect evidence of pollution and threaten lawsuits if they are not satisfied with how companies respond to threats. accusations. Drones were used, for example, to investigate a coal operation in West Virginia that allegedly dumped coal waste into a nearby river. Walls said the drone footage helped push the company to clean up the site.

On a nice, slightly windy day in June, Walls held an in-person workout near the fourth hole of the Bretton Woods golf course, just off the Potomac River in Maryland.

Waccamaw River caretaker Cara Schildtknecht of the Coastal Carolinas said it was amazing to finally be able to pilot the drone. “We’ve been training to do this for months,” she said at the in-person training with three other clean water advocates.

Schildtknecht had attended Walls’ online courses and passed the test for his pilot’s certificate. After his arrival, he removed the drone stickers from him. It was the first time he had flown one.

Walls helped the group make sure their controllers connected properly with their drones before they each had a chance to pilot a practice flight for about 10 minutes.

Schildtknecht said a drone will help her see hard-to-reach areas in her watershed, record flooding and find polluters. The view from above, she told her, “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 want to review,” he said.

Technological advances have helped grow the drone market. Miriam McNabb, editor-in-chief of trade publication 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 grants for newly trained activists cost around $2,000, Walls said.

After Walls made his allegations to Specialty Granules in 2019, the company stopped discharges through the pipe the drone had identified and installed a filtration system that improved water quality.

Matthew McClure, vice president of operations for Specialty Granules, said in a statement that the drone footage helped identify non-toxic stormwater discharge and that the company uses drones in its own operations. But McClure did not welcome the surprise inspection.

“Unscheduled drone overflights can present a distraction and potential accident for employees operating heavy machinery,” McClure said.

The ubiquity of video-recording drones 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 reduce the use of drones in “critical infrastructure,” a term that included mines, refineries , pipelines and natural gas plants.

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

A local environmental group that used a drone in Alabama to record discharges from an abandoned mine argued that the 2020 bill would prevent activists from policing misbehaving companies.

Ward said he was concerned that environmentalists would sabotage important facilities. To keep sites secure and protect the privacy of business owners, he said there should be limits on the use of drones, though finding the right balance is “incredibly complex.” His bill didn’t pass.

Drones are already widely deployed by scientists and industry to monitor whales, count trees and inspect cell phone towers. But even some environmental groups are skeptical about its widespread use to investigate water pollution. Not only must pilots be federally certified, but the rules for drone use differ by location: The Federal Aviation Administration isn’t the only agency that sets the rules.

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

Walls said his training is meant to help people navigate the rules and pass the FAA test. She teaches how to identify restricted airspace, avoid structures, and operate safely. To protect privacy, for example, pilots are told to make flight plans to avoid residential properties.

Anastasia Telesetsky, a professor of environmental law at California Polytechnic State University, said drones are a convenient tool for finding pollution that has been out of sight.

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

Martin Lively is the Great Guardian of the River in Northeast Oklahoma. An old mining site that is bad enough to be on the federal Superfund list is in his area.

“It is extremely contaminated with lead, zinc, arsenic, cadmium, manganese,” he said. “And all of that flows into my watershed.”

Due to pollution, the river is already regularly tested. But a drone goes a step further, helping to determine, for example, whether cleaned properties could be re-contaminated when flooded.

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

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

Phillis reported from St. Louis.

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