A little more about Coaldiver.org, if you haven’t had a chance to look at it yet. One of the cool new interactives on the site is called “Heatmap.” It shows you the size and intensity of coal mining across the U.S. using color. You start out with a map of the country that shows dots here and there representing active coal mines. Green represents smaller mining operations, yellow is greater intensity, and red dots are vast trenches visible from space.
Then Heatmap lets you zoom in to see what’s happening in each region. In some cases, individual mines become visible. If you switch over to “satellite” view when you get close enough, you can see the direct effects of Appalachian mountaintop removal — large light spots devoid of surrounding forest – or the manmade canyons in Wyoming. In northeast Wyoming, a relatively small number of very large and deep strip mines are the source of some 40% of U.S. annual coal production. On Heatmap, it looks like this:
The towns in this region – called the Powder River Basin – are small and far between, and most of the land affected is rangeland, or Thunder Basin National Grassland. Gillette, WY proudly refers to itself as the energy capital of the nation.
Appalachian mining has a different “temperature.” It’s spread across a much broader geographic area, but the amount of coal extracted at each site is much less than in Wyoming, leaving a blurry yellow effect across the map. At a similar degree of resolution, it’s clear both that there are more people in Appalachia to be affected by mining, and that the square mileage involved is greater.
In both Wyoming and West Virginia, to speak out publicly against the coal industry can be a career-limiting decision, if not outright dangerous. But mining on this scale isn’t a unilateral decision on the part of Wyoming, West Virginia, or any other mining state. It’s a decision each one of us makes when we flip a light switch that’s hooked up to a coal plant (like mine is). When we look at these mines, we are looking ourselves in the face.