A U.S. company is studying the feasibility of using satellite and airborne remote-sensing technology in Romania to monitor the extent of environmental damage caused by mining activities in the impoverished nation.

Romania is seeking entry into the European Union next year, and the study is a step that will help the former Soviet satellite-state bring its mining industry up to the necessary environmental standards, said Jeff Orrey, a senior scientist with Vexcel Corp., a remote sensing technology company based in Boulder, Colo.

In order to join the European Union, Romania has to show it is making progress toward correcting a number of safety and environmental issues with some 140 mines, Orrey said in a telephone interview. “Since [Romania] has a legacy of outdated industry and a lot of environmental problems, the idea is that remote sensing might be a more cost-effective way of ensuring monitoring to meet the standards,” he said.

Some of the mining problems that need monitoring include potential landslide hazards and ground water contamination, Orrey said.

Enter Vexcel, which builds satellite remote-sensing ground stations, data-processing systems and airborne cameras. The company counts mining companies among its clients.

The company’s $300,000 study, which will take about nine months to complete, is funded by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, Orrey said. According to the agency’s Web site, its mission is to advance U.S. commercial interests in developing and middle-income countries, and Orrey said part of the study’s purpose is to promote U.S.-based technologies for use in any environmental monitoring system the Romanian government may choose to deploy.

Such a system could cost up to $20 million and include a data management facility and related telecommunications infrastructure, Orrey said. The study could lead to a role for Vexcel in developing that system, but even if that does not happen, the company still could benefit from any new remote-sensing applications that come out of the work, he said. In addition, Vexcel sees the potential project as a market opportunity for its aerial camera technology, he said.

Romania’s current environmental monitoring activities are limited to testing ground water using terrestrial sensors and the occasional collection of imagery via aircraft, Orrey said. Vexcel’s study will examine the possibility of bringing satellite and more-advanced airborne systems into play, and ultimately could help land Romania at the forefront of environmental monitoring technology, he said.

Vexcel is primarily a hardware and software vendor, and studies are not a big part of its business, Orrey said. But the company has a number of clients in the mining industry so it is on familiar territory.

Among Vexcel’s mining clients is Cortez Gold Mines of Crescent Valley, Nev., which has used the remote sensing firm’s technology to monitor for environmental damage caused by its operations.

“A mine site is an area where it’s quite disturbed; you’re basically making one big hole in the ground, and one big mountain of rock on the other side,” said George Fennemore, an environmental superintendent for Cortez Gold Mines. Satellite data ” is helpful in determining how your activities are affecting the ground around you, away from the mine site itself and towards your neighbors,” he said. How far damage spreads is highly variable, and satellites are useful because they offer broad-area coverage, he said.

Cortez began using satellite technology to monitor areas surrounding its mines in 2002, and conducts surveys on an annual basis, Fennemore said.

Vexcel’s study of Romania’s mine problem likely will cover the use of airborne hyperspectral sensors, Orrey said. Hyperspectral sensors break reflected light into numerous spectral bands, revealing information about a surface’s texture and chemical makeup that would not be detected by conventional optical sensors.

The technology ” can be used to determine what mineral types are on the ground, and that tells you how a mining operation has affected the geochemistry of an area,” Orrey said. Hyperspectral sensors are particularly helpful in determining whether there has been excessive acid drainage from a mine, he said.

Also likely to figure into the study is space-based synthetic aperture radar, which can detect changes in elevation and other terrain shifts that can be caused by mining activities, Orrey said.

Florina Sora, who is overseeing the Vexcel study project at Romania’s National Agency for Mineral Resources, did not return requests for comment for this story.

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