Creating a Timeline of Fossil Fuel Disasters in America

As mentioned in a previous case study, much of the work we do in support of environmental law and toxic tort cases involves compiling comprehensive site histories. We work with our clients to come up with cost-efficient research strategies to answer their most pressing environmental and historical questions for litigation. Rarely do we get the chance to work outside our normal realm of legal clients and beyond the scope of a single site history, but that is exactly what happened over the past year in this unique case involving research into fossil fuel disasters in the United States for a non-legal client.

The Sierra Club, the nation’s largest grassroots environmental organization, requested our services to collect historical environmental data related to coal, crude oil, and natural gas accidents and disasters in the United States from 2004 to 2014. Sierra Club wanted to use this data to create a Dirty Fuels data visualization product that illustrated the extent and frequency of dangerous pollution events resulting from fossil fuel production. As part of their Beyond Coal campaign, it would clearly identify the number of spills, leaks, disasters, explosions, accidents, injuries, hospitalizations, and deaths related to coal, oil, and natural gas extraction, processing, transport, and storage. It would also demonstrate to Sierra Club supporters and the general public that fossil fuel related disasters could happen anywhere, even in one’s own backyard.

Our job was to collect the relevant data that our client desired and to do so we implemented a two-step research strategy. We worked closely with Sierra Club to brainstorm, plan, and collaborate in the initial research phase. This ensured that we tailored our research strategy to meet their evolving needs and to find and compile the data of interest in a cost efficient and timely manner. Building on Sierra Club’s work to-date, we first focused our research effort on gaining an understanding of the existing universe of U.S.-based fossil fuel disaster incidents between 2004 and 2014. Specifically, we looked into the scope of coal, oil, and natural gas accident and injury data readily available in the public domain.

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico

As is often the case in our historical environmental research, we began by completing basic internet research to determine the most relevant collections held in the federal repositories in the Washington, D.C. area. We identified collections of interest at the Library of Congress, where we often work, as well as at the Department of the Interior Library and the National Institute of Health Library. We then delved deeper into the collections and databases of interest. For example, at the Library of Congress, we conducted searches using Proquest Historical Newspapers and WorldCat in our effort to identify disaster sites. We began with coal and built upon data obtained from Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in order to fill in existing informational gaps for coal ash ponds and coal-fired power plants. We looked for site or facility names, company names or property owners, location information, details of each incident and the level of danger associated with it (hazard, high hazard, or disaster). We collaborated with Sierra Club to determine the types of data to collect and the necessary information required for each data point, so that they could ultimately pull together our research findings into their visualization product. Each data point would contain information on a specific type of incident, the risk of hazard, the impact upon people and property, and sources or links to further information on the particular disaster. In the end, we compiled data on hundreds of different coal ash ponds and coal-fired power plants around the country and meticulously organized our data using Google Sheets. We later input the data collected into a Google Fusion Table created by Sierra Club.

We followed the same process when looking into oil and natural gas disasters, especially related to pipeline incidents. Throughout our data collection process, we kept detailed source notes so we could include them in the visualization product in order to maintain the integrity of the data. Lastly, we mined data from governmental investigations and accident reports such as those produced by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). We also reviewed environmental databases like the Environmental Protection Agency’s EnviroFacts as well as newspaper archives and current news websites.

All of the data we collected from our historical environmental research effort was used by Sierra Club to create the data visualization product titled “Fossil Fuel Disasters in the U.S.” shown below and available on Sierra Club’s website. This is an interactive, descriptive chronological map that depicts the types of hazards that Sierra Club has identified as threatening communities across the country. It shows various types of fossil fuel production related disasters and potential threats over time. It also shows the impact of such disasters on people and the environment, such as groundwater contamination from coal ash ponds or agricultural lands destroyed from an oil pipeline spill.

With our expertise in historical environmental research and Sierra Club’s skills in interactive data mapping, a powerful knowledge-sharing tool was created that engages users. More importantly, it helps Sierra Club supporters and members of the general public understand the environmental history behind and potential risk of fossil fuel disasters in the United States. Data mapping projects like this one are playing an increasingly important role in understanding and interpreting history because they foster an immersive learning experience that enables users to view data from a new perspective. An article in this month’s issue of Perspectives on History, for example, delves into another data visualization project, which maps the occupation of the South post-Civil War. Its goal is to offer a new way to view and teach Reconstruction by illustrating the often-misinterpreted role of the U.S. Army in ensuring rights of newly freed slaves.

Furthermore, the fluid nature of data visualization projects, such as these, allows digital maps to reflect the constant evolution and expansion of their data sets over time. Scholars can continue to add more data as it is uncovered to better understand the U.S. Army’s role in the Reconstruction South. Likewise, Sierra Club can continue to input data as it emerges of new fossil fuel disasters, whether it’s another oil spill, pipeline leak, or deadly explosion. As more data is added, the more robust these maps will continue to be.

Do you have an environmental or historical research project that requires a digital visualization product such as data mapping? If so, contact us to find out how we can support your project goals.