Sunday, May 29, 2011

Appalachian Mountaintop Removal: Appalachian Voices

Appalachian Mountaintop Removal

 After years of working to raise awareness about mountaintop removal, I think it's amazing to see how the partnership between Google Earth and Appalachian Voices has helped to expose the impact of mountaintop removal by allowing people to see it for themselves. - Woody Harrelson, actor and environmentalist
 Coal's most catastrophic and permanent impacts are from mountaintop removal mining. If the American people could see what I have seen from the air and ground during my many trips to the coalfields of Kentucky and West Virginia: leveled mountains, devastated communities, wrecked economies and ruined lives, there would be a revolution in this country.

Well now you can visit coal country without ever having to leave your home. Every presidential candidate and every American ought to take a few seconds to visit an ingenious new website, [] that allows one to tour the obliterated landscapes of Appalachia.

The amazing new website allows you to enter your zip code to learn how you're personally connected to the great crime of mountaintop removal. Using this website Americans from Maine to California can see these mountains and the communities that were sacrificed to power their home.

The site puts a human face on the issue by highlighting the stories of families living in the shadows of these mines.

This new website finally exposes this national disgrace for every American to witness. 

- Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. from The Huffington Post
Update: As of May 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency has objected to 6 Mountaintop Removal coal mining projects out of 48 reviewed (source), after putting a hold on 150-200 proposed mining projects for closer examination (source). The Obama Administration is being called upon by environmental activists to reverse a last-minute Bush Administration rule that allows dumping of debris within 100 ft of streams (source). Dumping of waste within the 100 ft. buffer zone had previously been illegal since 1983.


Appalachian Voices
Mountaintop removal coal mining near McRoberts, Kentucky.
Enlarge image
Mountaintop removal coal mining is changing the American landscape on a scale that is hard to comprehend unless you see it from the air. Anyone who has ever flown in a small aircraft over southern West Virginia or eastern Kentucky will never forget the experience of seeing the massive scale of destruction - mountain after mountain blown up and dumped into valleys as far as the eye can see. Mountaintop removal affects more than mountains and streams, however; it is threatening to displace and destroy a distinctly American culture that has persisted in the Appalachian Mountains for generations. Appalachian people working to save their communities have long dreamed of ways to fly reporters, decision-makers, and thousands of other Americans over the Appalachian coalfields to see this destruction first hand - and then to visit their communities to hear stories of people who endure the consequences of what some have called "cheap energy." Now, thanks to Google Earth, a pretty good approximation of that tour is accessible to anyone who has a computer and a high-speed internet connection, extending our reach by millions of people. As Mary Anne Hitt, Executive Director of Appalachian Voicessaid: "Google Earth has transformed how we think about the issue, because it not only allows millions of people around the world to see and explore the impact on our region, but it also allows people right here in Appalachia to see for themselves what is going on in the mountains above their homes and communities." The Appalachian Mountaintop Removal layer was produced by Appalachian Voices as the centerpiece, an online action and resource center launched in September of 2006. Through, 7 grassroots organizations from across Appalachia are using cutting edge technology to reveal the devastation of their mountains and communities and to build a national movement to end the practice. In addition to Appalachian Voices, partners in include Coal River Mountain Watch,Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Save Our Cumberland Mountains, and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards.

Our Goals

As we've become more experienced in using the Google Earth platform, our goals for our Appalachian Mountaintop Removal layer have become increasingly ambitious. When we launched, we wanted to lift the cloak of secrecy that for decades had hidden mountaintop removal not only from the American people, but also from the communities directly below the mine sites.
Initially, our goals were to:
  • Convey the massive scale of destruction caused by mountaintop removal coal mining while connecting users to the human communities that are impacted and the human tragedies caused by the destruction.
  • Link users to the web where they can learn more about mountaintop removal, read about the effort to end it, and, most importantly, take action to help stop it.
  • Provide a platform to create and engage a network of supporters who we can partner with on a long-term basis to end mountaintop removal.
  • Develop a resource to educate and regularly update decisionmakers, media, bloggers and other Americans about mountaintop removal.
Since the launch of the Appalachian Mountaintop Removal layer in Google Earth, and the success it has had in bringing the issue before a national and international audience, we have developed additional goals that we are in the process of implementing. These include:
  • Create a simple and intuitive interface to show Americans how they are connected to mountaintop removal through their light switches.
  • Use the new flash video capabilities of Google Earth to create a YouTube - based "America's Most Endangered Mountains" layer to show, as only the high-impact medium of video can, not just what's been destroyed but also the beauty and value of the mountains, forests and communities in Appalachia that can still be saved.
  • Design a layer that shows how alternatives to coal from mountaintop removal could easily meet America's energy needs.

Our KML Implementation

Our KML implementation thus far has been completed in two distinct stages. The initial KML consisted of a 4 layer map with links to various other KML resources accessed through description balloons. 
Appalachian Voices
Mud River, West Virginia,
before mountaintop removal coal mining.
Enlarge image
The initial Appalachian Mountaintop Removal layer, [which currenly resides in the Global Awareness folder of Google Earth] included:
  • A user's guide to give people a road map of how to use the many resources for learning about mountaintop removal provided in the KML.
  • A high-resolution tour of a mountaintop removal site.
  • The locations of 22 featured mountains and communities impacted by mountaintop removal. The description balloons for this layer tell a brief but compelling story about the mountain and provide links to, a web site where visitors can watch videos hosted on YouTube, see photos hosted on Flickr, and read stories about the mountain. There are also links that allow users to view the locations of nearly 500 additional mountains that have been leveled by mountaintop removal operations.
  • Before and after overlays. Using Google Earth to overlay aerial photos from various time periods we were able to construct high-resolution before-and-after views for each of the 22 mountains that were memorialized. Recent aerial imagery was obtained from state digital ortho quadrangles, and older imagery was mostly obtained from the USGS National High Altitude Photography (NHAP) program.
Appalachian Voices
Mud River, West Virginia,
after mountaintop removal coal mining
Enlarge image
Since we were able to generate the initial KML code simply through the use of ARC2Earth software installed on our GIS system and compiling all of the resources into a KML using Google Earth Pro, we were able to start this project without any proficiency in KML programming at all. Preparing the ultimate KML file that was included in the Global Awareness layer required learning KML to create a high-quality end product. The second stage, launched in November of 2007, links users to an interactive website and MySQL database that generates a particular KML showing the user's connection to mountaintop removal based on a zip code or other input provided by the user. The implementation of the second stage - showing people their connection to mountaintop removal through their zip code - was considerably more technically complicated than the first. The objective was to connect visitors to the existing featured mountains and communities in a more personal way, incorporating user feedback (i.e., zip code) to generate - on the fly - a KML showing the details of that user's connection to mountaintop removal mines supplying the coal-fired power plants on his or her electric grid. Through the "My Connection" tool, visitors are linked to an interactive PHP web page where their zip code, typed into a web form, is used to query a MySQL database to identify their particular electricity provider, the coal-fired power plants operated by that utility, and the actual mine sites that have supplied those plants with coal over the past five years. The results are returned in a 2-D Google Maps mashup with a link to a KML file packaging the same information for Google Earth. The website provides both a graphical and textual description of a user's mountaintop removal connection, as well as a narrative description of a community impacted by the mountaintop removal operations associated the user's connection. 
Pin this badge on your site.

Type in your zip code above to get a
Google Earth file of your connection.
While the Google Maps mashup draws color-coded lines to show a visitor's connections to power plants and mountaintop removal mines, the 3-D capabilities of KML allowed for a much more impressive presentation of these connections. Not only does Google Earth convey the destruction caused by mountaintop removal in a far more effective way because of its 3-D capabilities, but using arcs in Google Earth to connect users to power plants and mine sites makes it far easier to visualize and understand the complex web of connections than is possible in a 2-D environment. The MySQL database linking zip codes to mine sites was constructed from four separate data sets, including:
The code to generate the arcs showing visitors' connections to mountaintop removal was written and provided by Sean Askay of Google Earth Outreach. A multitude of staff, interns, contractors, and volunteers from a number of organizations contributed to various aspects of this project, including the mapping of impacted mountains; the collection of photos, videos, and stories for featured mountains; and the production of before-and-after overlays. Creating the web-based and KML interfaces for the project was the work of three staff members atAppalachian Voices.
The Google Maps mashup from "My Connection".
Note the link to the Google Earth KML file
in the lower left hand corner.
The Google Earth view of the "My Connection" website.

Exposure, Recognition, and Impact

The use of Google Earth has transformed the way we think about our work, and has brought the mountaintop removal issue to a massive new audience. The site has received major national media coverage and recognition for innovation. Images and videos from our KML layers have been presented to dozens of live audiences, ranging from small church groups and rotary clubs to large conferences and keynote presentations at environmental events. 
Appalachian Voices
Illustration of the mountaintop removal blasting process;
dynamite holes visible in the imagery.
Enlarge image
YouTube videos from the site that incorporate video from our KML have been viewed by more than 100,000 people to date. Celebrities and decision makers that have been spreading the word include Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Woody Harrelson, Sheryl Crow, Kathy Mattea, Congressman Frank Pallone, and Michael Moore. One of the most important successes of the site has been our ability to attract and engage an ever-growing network of individuals who are becoming active, long-term partners in our work. Over 25,000 people have signed up on the site and joined our network of supporters, and that number is increasing every day. The site is also being used heavily by local coalfield residents to view the mining activity around their homes. We have publicized the launch and updates to our KML through a variety of venues, including press releases and a press conference in Washington, DC, email messages to thousands of supporters, and banner ads on some popular blogs and online magazines. Publicly launching our project in Google Earth and participating in Google's Global Awareness program has elevated the profile of the mountaintop removal issue astronomically. In the ten days following release of the Appalachian Mountaintop Removal KML in Google Earth, more than 13,000 people from every US state and more than 30 countries signed our online petition to stop the dumping of mountaintop mining waste into waterways. Not only has this endeavor brought additional regional and national media attention to the issue (with stories in hundreds of newspapers nationwide), but the traffic on iLoveMountains.organd the number of people joining the movement to stop mountaintop removal has been boosted to a new level. Just as important, this project's partnership of a half-dozen less-than-tech-savvy grassroots organizations from across Appalachia has created a new and much stronger framework for cooperation of local and regional organizations on the national stage. We are already working together to create additional projects to release on the Google Earth platform, and our ability to share information and resources with each other has expanded tremendously. Before we embarked on this project, we didn't fully appreciated the potential of Google Earth to provide a framework for organizing and sharing information geographically in all aspects of our work. We now view all new projects through the lens of Google Earth and Google Maps, and we are continuing to develop new applications of the technology to tell the story of mountaintop removal, capture the public's imagination, and mobilize and expand our base of supporters. Recent articles written about website include:

Advice To Others

We have heard from dozens of people who are considering developing projects on Google Earth, and our main messages to them have been:
  • It's easier than you think. Don't feel like you need to contract out expensive consultants to develop a project. Take the time to learn a little about KML development, and you'll be surprised how much you can accomplish on your own.
  • Your Google Earth KML project can be as sophisticated and rich as you imagine. You can start with a simple design and iteratively refine and hone it over time, adding greater sophistication as you move forward.
  • It's more powerful than you think. Google Earth and Google Maps mashups with KML provide a very flexible platform which is constantly improving. You can be very creative about what information you want to provide and how you provide it.



Mary Anne Hitt, Executive Director
Matthew Wasson, Ph.D, Conservation Director, Appalachian Voices


Mary Anne Hitt, Executive Director

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