I got my first real look into the gray-green heart of a Powder River Basin (WY) coal mine from the left hand seat of a Cessna 172 RG in October 2008. I’ve seen mines before. Anybody who’s been to Butte, Montana isn’t going to be easily impressed by a big mine. But the scale of the PRB extraction still blew my mind. It just went on and on. Mile after mile, hundreds of feet below the surface, with machinery that rendered human beings, pickups, even the monster mining dump trucks little bug-like creatures serving the queen bees that shift an unimaginable weight of earth. The plume of dust is visible first, then the gray pit that looks like a black-and-white photograph, until you notice the green water standing in the bottom in this dry, dry country. Groundwater: an aquifer laid bare.
It’s not the easiest thing to get access to these mines. They cover vast tracts of land far off the beaten track. The two-lane highway between Gillette and Wright, WY, is as close as you can get to some of them. Local roads route you away from the action. Access is limited for good reason. The high explosives used to break loose overburden would be enough to level whole neighborhoods.
You can get an idea of what’s going on by pulling up images on Google Earth. Here’s a look at the biggest mine – Arch Coal’s Black Thunder – from nearly 10 miles above the surface.
I took pictures the length of the basin from south to north: the pits, the equipment, the Big Horn Mountains in the distance, the towns of Wright and Gillette, the coal plant complexes. Leaning out the window while my co-pilot brought us low in slow flight, trying to get shots that would offer the same perspective I had, I felt drained and stunned at the extent of industrial development in this quiet corner of Wyoming, not far from the town of Thermopolis where my grandfather was born. This is not my grandpa’s Wyoming. I grew up thinking of the Powder River country as the last true cowboy country, as pristine as it was desolate. No more.
At home, looking at my photos, reading more about the mining industry, and wondering why I hadn’t known about any of this, I began to wonder how to let other people know. This is where most of our coal comes from. If your electricity originates at a coal-fired power plant, chances are that the coal came from the Powder River Basin. This story has to be told. I wanted to create something as honest as ilovemountains.org, which brought human faces and gut-wrenching visuals to the mountaintop removal issue, but a step removed from advocacy. This is how Coal Diver was born.
We built Coal Diver to be a reliable source of information first and foremost. It will likely serve advocates – we very much hope it does. But the urgent need is just to get the word out about how western coal mining works, what it looks like, how big it is, what it costs, how much it’s subsidized, what the impacts are, who’s involved – everything we can think of that people may want to know. The coal industry plays an enormous role in the debate over climate legislation. The public needs to see the inner workings of this massive economic engine that’s gobbling up so many public resources, to feed our own electric appetites. Coal Diver will provide a little more transparency, and some innovative tools like “How Big Is It?” and “Heatmap” to aid understanding. The interface is clean and interactive. This site is fun to play with!
I’m writing this post tonight on an energy efficient laptop, under compact flourescent lighting, in a well-insulated house that needs no air conditioning, but a few miles away my electricity is being produced at PPL Montana’s 154 megawatt, coal-fired J.E. Corette Generating Station. We are all complicit. Let’s find out the true cost of our fossil fuel addiction.