Satellite Photos Reveal How Mountaintop Removal Is Scarring Appalachia

Hobet Mine of West Virginia in 1984 (Photos: NASA)

From high-profile protests to rowdy political debates, coal-mining by the way of mountaintop removal is a hotly-contended issue. It has a terrible environmental and human cost (see how the estimated health costs outweigh MTR's economic 'benefits' ), while supporters say it's a livelihood that boosts local economies. But make no mistake, regardless of where you stand, images can say more than a thousand debates and as these recent time-lapse satellite photos released by NASA show (more after the jump), mountain-top removal is a practice that visibly scars the landscape, voraciously eating up forests, streams and valleys.


Covering a period between 1984 to 2009, the photos from NASA's Landsat 5 satellite show Hobet Mine, located in Boone County, West Virginia, as starting small but gradually growing to an area of over 10,000 acres (15.6 square miles).


From NASA's Earth Observatory:

These natural-color (photo-like) images document the growth of the Hobet mine as it moves from ridge to ridge between 1984 to 2009.

The natural landscape of the area is dark green, forested mountains, creased by streams and indented by hollows. The active mining areas appear off-white, while areas being reclaimed with vegetation appear light green. A pipeline roughly bisects the images from north to south. The town of Madison, lower right, lies along the banks of the Coal River.

In 1984, the mining operation is limited to a relatively small area west of the Coal River. The mine first expands along mountaintops to the southwest, tracing an oak-leaf-shaped outline around the hollows of Big Horse Creek and continuing in an unbroken line across the ridges to the southwest. Between 1991 and 1992, the mine moves north, and the impact of one of the most controversial aspects of mountaintop mining--rock and earth dams called valley fills--becomes evident.


Because coal operations are legally-bound to try to restore the mountain to its original state after blowing it up, rock debris from what was once the summit is piled up in shaky approximations of "original." But there is always too much debris left over, so coal companies dump the rest in streams, hollows and gullies, polluting hundreds of miles of waterways all over Appalachia. In the photos, you can see this happening from 1996 to 2000, as part of the Connelly Branch is being filled up from its source to its mouth at Mud River.


Whether or not mountaintop removal can continue in face of glaring realities to the contrary (see the USGS' prediction of Peak Coal coming in less than 20 years) - it's clear that public opposition is strong and mounting, and will hopefully turn the political tide in time.

More on Mountaintop Removal
In Appalachia, Coal Mining Costs $9-$76 Billion More Per Year Than It Pulls In, Claims Study
EPA Approves One New Mountaintop Removal Coal Mine, Finds 'Path Forward' for Second
One Year Later, TVA Coal Ash Spill Problems Still Far From Over
Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Stream Damage Could Take 1,000 Years to Fix
Scientists Say Mountaintop Removal Mining Should Be Banned - No Remediation Ever Enough
What Comes After Coal for West Virginia Mountaintop Miners?

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