Featured NewsTrending NewsGeneral NewsDrones Next Mission: Bringing Polluters to Justice?


"A drone is a storytelling tool that can capture powerful images," says Anastasia Telesetsky, an environmental law professor at California Polytechnic State University.

It's also an excellent witness in environmental litigation cases.

For example, as reported by The Washington Post, when environmentalist Brent Walls saw a white-ish discharge floating in a stream in central Pennsylvania, he suspected a nearby rock mine of violating the law. But as the mine was surrounded by private property, he couldn't confirm his suspicions without trespassing.

His drone, however, provided the perfect solution. Thanks to a birds-eye view of a murky liquid flowing into a creek from the mine, Walls was able to document the matter photographically, and he used the photos to accuse Specialty Granules LLC of violating the Clean Water Act. The company stopped the discharges the drone had identified, and it also installed a filtration system that improved water quality.

It's critical to note that the 50-year-old Clean Water Act doesn't just give federal officials the ability to seek out wrongdoing and enforce the law—it allows individual citizens to bring polluters to justice, as well. 

That's why Walls is training drone pilots for the Waterkeeper Alliance—a global network of clean-water groups. The nonprofit activism group wants many drones in the air "telling stories" about companies who dare to pollute waterways. Of course, those looking to collect evidence using drones must possess a federally-issued pilot’s certificate and adhere to federal, state and local rules.

However, the environmental eyes in the sky have already claimed some victories. For example, drone footage pushed a West Virginia coal operation to clean up a nearby river after investigative footage showed the company was indeed polluting it with coal residue.

Waccamaw Riverkeeper Cara Schildtknecht—a new drone pilot, thanks to Walls' online courses—calls such drone reconnaissance a "gamechanger." 

“We have certain areas that we know could be of concern that we want to check out,” she said. "I want to see areas that are hard to reach, and record floods and find polluters. Previously, that would have required paying a pilot for a manned flight."

But it's still far from an easy task to watchdog potential polluters.

Although Specialty Granules—the firm identified by Walls—did the right thing and cleaned up its act, Matthew McClure, vice president of operations is not a fan of surprise drone flybys.

“Unscheduled drone overflies can present a distraction and potential accidents to employees who operate heavy machinery,” said McClure, who acknowledged that the company uses its own drones to monitor some operations.

There are also 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 curtail drone use over “critical infrastructure”—which was defined as  mines, refineries, pipelines, and natural gas plants.

“There has to be some expectation of privacy,” said Ward, citing concerns about environmentalists sabotaging facilities. 

The bill did not pass—but Ward still feels there should be limits on drone use to keep sites safe and protect the privacy of business owners.

Even some enviromental groups are skeptical that widespread drone use will curtail water polluters—especially as drone regulations often differ from location to location, and the FAA isn't the only agency setting the rules.

“It is a patchwork of uneven, inconsistent, local, state, and federal regulations across our region,” said DJ Gerken, program director at the the Southern Environmental Law Center that works with partners who use drones. Navigating that patchwork of rules matters for ensuring that evidence is admissible in court.

However, drones are still excellent tools for finding pollution that has been out of sight.
“There are a lot of groups that know there is a problem, but they have been limited by the tools they can use to compel regulators to do their jobs,” said Telesetsky.

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