Watch a Mountaintop Disappear

Nowhere is the debate over how far we are willing to go for dirty energy more contentious than in the coalfields of Appalachia.  It is there -- between the hollows of West Virginia, beyond the bluegrass of Kentucky, bordering the Blue Ridge of Virginia, and above the smoky vistas of Tennessee -- where mining companies are blowing up America's oldest mountains to get the coal beneath the peaks.  Instead of extracting the coal by underground mining, this extreme strip mining uses explosive charges and large machinery to remove the mountain and get to the coal. 

Mountaintop removal coal mining is scarring the landscape and threatening communities throughout Appalachia.  Already, more than one million acres of some of the world's most biologically diverse forests have been clearcut.  So far, nearly 2,000 miles of valley streams have been buried under tons of rubble, polluting drinking water and threatening the health and safety of all who make their home in the region.  And some 500 mountaintops have been leveled.

One such mountaintop turned into a barren moonscape is located in southern West Virginia.  Back in January, to the dismay of those of us opposed to mountaintop removal, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cut a deal to allow the Patriot Coal Co. to expand its operations at the the Hobet 45 mine.

Now it is possible to see for oneself the evolution of destruction at this mine site over the past two decades, based on data from NASA’s Landsat 5 satellite.  Click here to view a series natural-color (photo-like) images -- along with narrative detail -- documenting the growth of the Hobet mine as it moves from ridge to ridge between 1984 to 2009.

The satellite images provide a stark and stunning story of Appalachia's dirty little secret: mountaintop removal.  And they reinforce the sad truth that a mountain is a terrible thing to which to lay waste.

[UPDATE: The good folks at National Geographic turned the photos into a jaw-dropping time-lapsed slide show.]

Note: The first image below is from 1984; the second image shows the extent of the mine as of 2009.  View the entire catelog of NASA images and prepare to be horrified.