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Photographing threatened waters

The year I bought my first drone, 2016, was also the year the FAA instituted a program to allow drone pilots The Partridge River on the PolyMet site to fly for reasons other than pure recreation, such as for commercial purposes. Once I had the certifications, registrations and insurance needed to fly commercially I set out to see if drone photojournalism could be a thing. Turns out it is, but even back then Traditional Media companies wouldn't buy freelance drone video or pictures (unless they were truly extraordinary of course).

One idea I had was that Traditional and even Alternative Media didn't have good photography of the areas planned for sulfide mines. Invariably a picture of a rusted old plant would be illustration for news stories, rather than pictures or video of the area where the actual mine would be. This really shortchanged the magnitude of the proposed changes, as in the case of the proposed PolyMet sulfide mine, where the location for actual mining would be a boreal forest and wetland.

After much research and consternation I discovered that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get good video or still pictures of the site of the proposed PolyMet sulfide mine because the mining companies appeared to own all the land surrounding the project, and drones in the US can only be flown within visual line of sight, which means you need to get close. I nevertheless found one way to fly on one day for like a half hour and got a few good shots.

But the difficulty of gaining access to PolyMet spurred me to a different approach: Instead of photographing mine sites or proposed mine sites (which I would still like to do), I would focus on areas where waters could be harmed either by the day to day operations of a mine, an accident at a mine, or a long term degradation of the mine site. This opened up many new areas of exploration that were available by drone.

-- Rob Levine, December 2023

Threatened Waters

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