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Drones have become an amazing tool for environmentalists to help investigate and find violations of pollution regulations.

Source: Norfolk Now/Youtube

Environmentalist Brent Walls saw a milky white substance flowing in a stream through rural central Pennsylvania, which he suspected was from a nearby rock mine breaking the law, according to Associated Press. Although he thought recent rain could have filled ponds at the mine that let the sediment settle out of the water, he wanted to make sure. With help from his drone, Walls flew it over to investigate and avoid trespassing. He captured images of the area.

“That’s when I found the illicit discharge,” he told AP. The photo shows the liquid flowing into the creek was evidence that Walls used to accuse Specialty Granules LLC of violating the Clean Water Act.

Drone footage captured usually doesn’t have to make it to the point of bringing in federal agencies. Often, the footage can be a good enough nudge for companies to clean up polluted sites. Drones were used in West Virginia when a coal operation was allegedly discharging coal residue into a river. Walls tells AP that the footage helped push the company to clean it up.

When Walls spoke to Specialty Granules about the footage he captured in 2019, the company stopped discharges through the pipe and installed a filtration system to improve water quality.

The Clean Water Act can be enforced by individuals, not just federal agents. This means that it is entirely legal for citizens to use drones to collect evidence. However, they must have a federally-issued pilot’s certificate and move through numerous federal, state, and local rules.

Although drones used to find polluters are still rare, Walls wants them to be used more. With the help of a grant, Walls trains drone pilots for the Waterkeeper Alliance, a global network of clean water groups. The nonprofit wants to train activists around the country to use technology for storytelling and to collect evidence of companies polluting rivers and streams, AP reports.

Now, Walls has online courses and holds in-person training to get activists and environmentalists certified to fly drones and save the environment. Walls training is meant to help people follow the rules and pass the FAA test. He teaches them how to identify restricted airspace, avoid structures and operate safely. Pilots are instructed to make flight plans to avoid residential properties.

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