Environmental Article by Harold Hough

Has a local environmental group accused you of causing environmental damage caused decades ago? Are you facing EPA fines for something you didn’t do? There may be help from the government itself – the National Archives.

Although commercial satellite imagery is readily available to document what has happened on your property for the last 20 years, there is untold ecological damage that occurred long before that. Unfortunately, there is little way to prove that some long forgotten mining concern caused the damage long before you acquired the property. That’s where older government spy satellite imagery and even aerial photography may help.

When Clinton unclassified the CORONA spy satellite imagery in 1995, one reason was to document environmental damage in the past few decades. But, it can save you hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and fines since the courts have recognized that overheard imagery is valid evidence in environmental cases.

The first place to start is the internet. All 800,000 CORONA images are now declassified and can be ordered through the U.S. Geological Survey. The center sells duplicates of CORONA film in all standard photo product types, and maintains a metadata archive on CORONA, with browsing quality images of most CORONA frames.

But, that may not be enough. In addition to spy satellite imagery, there is a large body of aerial photography produced by the government for surveying. Roads that used federal government money usually had an aerial survey done in advance of the work. This material is also available at the National Archives. There are also the U-2 spy plane flights, which may have some important information.

The National Archives also has all the supporting documentation for these images, which may be critical for a legal case. Unfortunately, finding the imagery will take several steps, including getting into the National Archives building in College Park, Maryland. You first have to register as a researcher, which takes a few minutes on the first floor. Then you go through a security check and must leave anything not directly related to your research (including notebooks). The archivists will provide pencils and paper.

Satellite and aerial imagery are found on the third floor in the Cartographic and Architectural Branch. There is a large work area and light tables to do your research. Since this isn’t a popular part of the archives, the crowds are light. Most of the crowds are busy checking out the files on the Kennedy assassination or extraterrestrials.

The first step in finding the right scene is to find the World Air Chart (WAC) number for your area of interest. An archivist can direct you to the WAS chart if you don’t have the number already. However, the airport nearest your mine or a map store can probably give you the information, which should save you valuable time. Once you have the WAS number, you can fill out a request form for the Mission Coverage Charts for the area. These charts are about three by four feet and show where any imagery was acquired. You may end up with dozens of charts depending on where you are looking. Each mission chart is overlaid with a photograph, which indicates cloud coverage and overall photo quality. If you want to look at the image, you write down the mission number, date it was taken, and the specific frame.

As you search, remember you need to find the best evidence, not the first you come upon. In the case of the spy satellite imagery, the photos taken closer to 1972 are the best because resolution is better. Also keep in mind that imagery taken during several seasons may give more information. Winter snow cover can highlight activity. Summer and spring photos can highlight disruptions of vegetation due to pollution.

Although some of this imagery is on line, you may want to order hard copies from the National Archives in order to provide a legal trail. Rush service is available. Also be sure to copy supporting documents like mission logs so the validity of the imagery can’t be questioned later. Data on the cameras used, any mission evaluations, and technical reviews should be pulled and copied too.

If you decide to do research at the National Archives, plan to spend a couple of days. The first day will probably be spent getting familiar with the materials available. The second day will be filled with viewing and studying any imagery you find. However, you will probably discover that the time spent will be well worth it.