Coal mining in Appalachia became even more destructive in recent decades as mining companies shifted to a technique called mountaintop mining. With mountaintop mining, companies first cut away forest cover and then use explosives to blast ridge tops and expose the coal seams beneath. This form of strip mining produces tons of waste rock (the parts of the mountain of no use to coal companies) that miners dump into neighboring valleys. This “valley fill” has buried roughly 2,000 thousand miles of streams, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – posing immediate health and safety risks to local residents, threatening downstream water quality, and degrading or destroying some of the most ecologically significant forest and aquatic habitats on the planet.
Using satellite imagery, SkyTruth was the first to document the extent of habitat destruction from mountaintop mining in Central Appalachia. Nonprofit conservation groups and scientific researchers have used our data to raise awareness in affected communities and document ecological and human health impacts associated with this destructive practice. For example, in a 2011 study, Dr. Melissa Ahern (health economist at Washington State University), Dr. Michael Hendryx, (epidemiologist at West Virginia University) and their colleagues found significantly higher rates of birth defects in communities near MTM operations.
Dr. Emily Bernhardt, a biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, led a 2010 study that used the historical data we mapped along with studies of water quality and invertebrate biodiversity collected by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. Her team found that mining operations can seriously debilitate ecosystems. The study, which was featured in the August 9, 2010 issue of the prestigious journal Nature and later published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology, raises serious doubts about the industry’s contention that there is no need for tighter water-quality standards to keep mountaintop removal from contaminating drinking water relied on by communities downstream of the mines.
When asked by Nature about the significance of the new study, EPA officials issued a statement calling the findings “generally consistent” with its own research. This work underpins EPA’s controversial decision to revoke a mining permit that had already been issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. It was only the second time in EPA’s history that they have exercised this authority under the Clean Water Act, and though it was challenged all the way up to the Supreme Court, the EPA’s authority to overrule the Army Corps of Engineers was reaffirmed in federal court in 2014.
In 2018, we published our map of the yearly extent of mountaintop mining in Central Appalachia from 1985 through 2015 in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, along with our partners at Duke University, Google, and Appalachian Voices, and elsewhere. We made our processing models and output data publicly available and update them annually.