The High Cost of Coal

As this, the fall issue of the Appalachian Voice goes to press, millions of Americans are flocking to the mountains to see the gorgeous vistas of autumn foliage as they can only be seen in the Appalachians, home of the most diverse forests in the nation. According to a mapping project recently completed by Appalachian Voices, however, there will be no flaming autumn foliage on at least 474 of these mountains again in our lifetimes or those of our grandchildren or their grandchildren. A comprehensive survey conducted as part of a new online project, the National Memorial for the Mountains, identified 474 mountain peaks and ridge summits that have been destroyed by mountaintop removal and related forms of coal mining between 1970 and 2005.

Launched in September, the National Memorial for the Mountains is an interactive, online memorial that uses Google Earth to show the locations of mountains destroyed by mountaintop removal in a way that allows visitors to link to stories, images and interviews about the mountain and nearby communities.
Designing the memorial in Google Earth allowed Appalachian Voices to incorporate many other tools and features to help visitors grasp the scale and magnitude of mountaintop removal. For instance, the memorial tells the story of Versie Sims, a real-estate broker in Lincoln County, WV, who discovered that her new neighbor was going to be an expansion of the already massive Hobet mine complex in West Virginia. For those unfamiliar with the local geography, the 10,000 acre footprint of this mine complex can be hard to visualize. New mapping technology, however, allowed us to create overlays of the Hobet mine complex on 36 U.S. cities so that visitors could see the massive scale of these operations from a familiar perspective (see the image of the Hobet Mine complex superimposed on Manhattan in the sidebar).

Similarly, Google Earth allows overlays of older landscape imagery allowing visitors to see “before and after” scenes of the pre and post mining landscape. For instance, the Google Earth images of the Coal River Valley in West Virginia in the sidebar at the right of the page, shows overlays of aerial images from 1983 and 1984 and the same area 20 years later, with mountaintop removal well underway. The gray areas in the 2004 scene are mountaintop removal coal mines.

But the maps and computer technology are not the real story of the National Memorial for the Mountains. Underlying all the whiz-bang technology are the stories of the human tragedy brought on by the devastation of the mountains. Mountaintop removal coal mining has created life-changing tragedies for thousands of families in Appalachia, largely out of sight of the American people.

The National Memorial for the Mountains tells how life at the home Joe Barnett built for his family changed the day that earth-shaking and foundation-cracking blasts began happening night and day not far from their home. It tells how life changed in the town of Rawl, West Virginia, after residents discovered the high rate of sickness they’d been suffering was the result of pollution of their drinking water. And it tells how life changed in the town of Appalachia, Virginia, the night a boulder from a mining operation came crashing through the roof and onto the bed of a toddler, killing him in his sleep.

The National Memorial for the mountains is replete with such stories, but it also tells happier stories of what life was like before the big surface mines began in the early 70s. The site links in audio interviews of Appalachian people from the Library of Congress and photos by celebrated Appalachian photographers such as Builder Levy. Many stories are written by Appalachian authors such as Denise Giardina and Penny Loeb.

The goal of the National Memorial for the Mountains is to get the word out about mountaintop removal all across America – it’s the belief of many who work to end mountaintop removal that the biggest problem is that most Americans don’t know it’s happening. However, the team working on the memorial didn’t want it to be just another media stunt with little depth or staying power. Most of all, we wanted to honor the people, the mountains, and the culture that is being destroyed in Appalachia and to convey to Americans the value of the natural and cultural treasures that are being destroyed for a few decades of cheap and dirty energy.

The National Memorial for the Mountains is hosted on, a new website and online organizing campaign designed by Appalachian Voices with the help and support of six grassroots organizations in the Appalachian coalfields whose members contributed stories, prayers, essays, photos and more. Visitors to the site have access to interactive maps, videos, animations, podcasts and other tools to easily educate themselves and others about mountaintop removal. was created to give Americans across the nation a way to stay informed about mountaintop removal coal mining and to stay connected with the national effort to end the practice. It was designed to allow Americans across f the country to easily support the people of Appalachia who are fighting to save their homes and homeland – right from their computers.

Some of the features on the site other than the National Memorial for the Mountains are described in detail below.

“Multimedia” page – features two new videos about mountaintop removal including an 8-minute video introduction to the problem featuring actor Woody Harrrleson and a new recording of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” sung by Willie Nelson exclusively for There is also a three-minute video introduction to the National Memorial for the Mountains

“Go Tell It on the Mountain” page – Many people are called to the cause of ending mountaintop removal by their faith. The “Go Tell it on the Mountain” page gives people of faith a place to share their prayers for the people, landscape, and culture of Appalachia. Visitors are also guided to 5 resolutions expressing concern or opposition to mountaintop removal passed by major religious denominations.

“High Cost of Coal” page – Along with global warming, mountaintop removal is an egregious example of the destructive impact of our addiction to coal. This page discusses mountaintop removal in the context of America’s energy future from a variety of perspectives ranging from policy experts like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, to impacted residents of the Appalachian coalfields.

“Take Action” page – incorporates a state-of-the-art online campaign that makes it easy for people to spread the word about the campaign and to stay engaged as the campaign grows. The site keeps track of each user’s personal impact (how many people they get to pledge to help end mountaintop removal, how many people those people get to pledge, etc…) and shows how the campaign is spreading across the country in real time.

A Call to Action

Appalachian Voices and our partner organizations created because taking on an industry as powerful as coal and standing in the way of tens of billions of dollars in profits requires some really good tools. With no national environmental organizations working to stop mountaintop removal, is the tool needed to get the word out all across America that mountaintop removal is happening.

But tools alone are simply not enough – a lot of allies all across the country are needed to stop mountaintop removal. Appalachian Voice readers have been reading about mountaintop removal in our pages for more than a decade. Never before have we asked you to take action to stop it. But in order that we not have to write articles about mountaintop removal for another decade, while more giant swaths of our mountain landscape are destroyed forever, we are asking you to take action now.

Please visit, and help spread the word to their friends and family through the online tools. Together,we can put a stop to mountaintop removal.


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