LAND, AIR AND SEE

The visual story of what humans sacrifice in our relentless hunt for coal

Imagine a coal miner. The picture in your mind is likely that of a strongly built man, with soiled clothes, black coal smudged across exposed skin, and a hard hat marred by years of work.

That image, though, hasn’t been accurate since the 1950s. To picture today’s version of coal mining, imagine massive machines that shave vegetation from the land, millions of pounds of explosives that blow off mountain tops, and huge cranes, called draglines, which can carry more than 100 metric tons of dirt and coal in a single scoop.

This new form of mining requires far fewer human employees, which has led to crippling unemployment in communities throughout Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. It also tends to obliterate mountain terrains. Quartz studied years of satellite imagery to provide visual evidence of what happens when we offer up land to the relentless pursuit of coal. In some cases, areas are rebuilt into community resources like schools or business developments; in others, they are left destroyed, doing nothing more but exacting negative effects on the environment ranging from polluted air to contaminated water.

Reconstructing a mountaintop by redeveloping it

 

Mining has drastically changed the topology of the Appalachian region in America. Federal regulations in the US require that mountains either be redeveloped or returned to their “approximate original contour.” With the right care, a former mine site can become a potentially valuable economic asset.

From flatspace to landing space

1960

Image of the mined area in 1960

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1985

Image of the mined area in 1985

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2014

Image of the mined area in 2014

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The most unique reuse of a former coal field may be the Logan Airport, which has been built on top of a former mine in Logan County, West Virginia. “Millions of dollars have been put up here on this reclaimed mine that gives our southern counties something very special,” Art Kirkendoll, then-president of the Logan County Commission, told Friends of Coal in 2010.

Around 20 planes, helicopters, and ultralights are based at Logan according to Federal Aviation Administration data. In 2013, its single runway saw 17 takeoff and landings per day on average.

A school for 700 kids

1979

Image of the mined area in 1979

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2007

Image of the mined area in 2007

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2014

Image of the mined area in 2014

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The Mingo Central Comprehensive High School is on a former coal mine sitting alongside a West Virginia road that is expected to become part of the long-planned King Coal highway. It has 60 classrooms, a dining room that seats 488, an auditorium for 400, and a gymnasium with a capacity of 2,160. The school’s football team is, appropriately, named the Miners. When the site was opened in 2013, the West Virginia Coal Association said the school “joins a growing number of public commercial, industrial, and recreational facilities throughout West Virginia that is supporting a newfound dimension of our state’s economy and job base.”

Forgiving fairways at a reasonable price

1977

Image of the mined area in 1977

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1996

Image of the mined area in 1996

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2014

Image of the mined area in 2014

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“The jewel of the coal fields, with forgiving fairways and smooth greens welcomes everyone to come and challenge their abilities on one of the state’s finest golf courses,” says the Twisted Gun golf club website. Twisted Gun’s reviewers like it for the price—only $25 for 18 holes—but hate it for its remoteness—“not only off the beaten path, at this time there is barely a path to get there.”

An older version of the website stated that the golf course in Mingo County, West Virginia was built on top of former coal mine by three coal-mining companies “out of concern for the recreational needs of the surrounding area.” But not everyone is happy about it. “They defend it by sayin’ they got a golf course out in Mingo, but how’s that supposed to make me feel better? You gotta have a rich guy to come out and play on it,” a local told Erin Ann Thomas in her book Coal in Our Veins.

Reconstructing a mountaintop by recontouring it

If mining companies don’t get a development approved, they are required by federal law to return mined mountains to their “approximate original contour.” This involves smoothing any bumps and laying down a top layer of soil. Some are left to recover through natural spread of vegetation, while others get replanted with trees.

Poor reclamation, flooding and lawsuits

1950

Image of the mined area in 1950

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1995

Image of the mined area in 1995

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Mining in Breathitt County in Kentucky began at the turn of the 20th century. In the image from 1995 above, you can see a former coal mine, which the law requires to be restored to an “approximate original contour.” This sort of reclamation work usually involves smoothing any bumps on the surface, adding a top layer of soil, and planting trees or shrubs.

2014

Image of the mined area in 2014

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What appears on satellite images, however, may not be the whole truth. In 2009, residents of the county filed a lawsuit against four coal companies claiming poor reclamation of surface mines, which exacerbated flooding following heavy rains that year. The companies settled the case out of court for an undisclosed sum. What may have triggered the coal companies to settle was evidence provided by a Virginia engineering firm showing that during heavy rains, the peak flow in the creek that caused the flood was about 80% higher than it would have been had there been no mining done.

Uneven terrain and uninhabitable ecosystems

1979

Image of the mined area in 1979

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1996

Image of the mined area in 1996

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2014

Image of the mined area in 2014

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This former coal mine near Millard, Kentucky, like other former mines in the area, is supposed to have “diverse and permanent vegetation” to comply with regulations. Its flora, such as exfoliating bark, is supposed to provide protection of the Indiana Bat and other wildlife. While that may be the case, it appears from satellite images that the smooth contour has been remade into step grade.

Reconstructing a mountaintop and failing

1978

How federal regulations are interpreted depends on the watchdog. If the mining companies can get away with not investing in the site after their done extracting coal, they do. Many times old mines are neither shaped back to their original contour nor see permanent development.

A prison that never revived a community

1977

Image of the mined area in 1977

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2003

Image of the mined area in 2003

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2014

Image of the mined area in 2014

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The counties of McDowell and Wyoming in West Virginia were once the largest producers of coal in the US. But today, coal-mining jobs have all but disappeared in the region. To prop up the economy, counties here have opened up several federal prisons over the past few decades. The most recently built is the Federal Correctional Institution at McDowell, which houses 1,280 male offenders, and is located near Welch, a small town with 2,406 people.

Success has been mixed. “The prison is doing well,” state senator Richard Browning told Salmon Press in 2011, two years after the facility opened, “I’m really proud of it. It’s fitting into the community.” At the same time, Browning admitted, the prison wasn’t doing much to improve the local economy—primarily because most employees at the prison didn’t live in Welch, which like other coal towns has been built in hard, inhospitable areas. With little cash flowing into the town, community building and other development of Welch stalled.

The problem remains. A 2016 local media report found that only 41 out 305 prison employees lived in Welch. The result was easy for anyone to see: “Abandoned shops, closed schools and neglected homes are visible on almost every corner,” said the report.

A main street with no buildings

1979

Image of the mined area in 1979

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2003

Image of the mined area in 2003

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2017

Image of the mined area in 2017

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Near Grundy, Virginia in Buchanan County these former mine sites now house a 260-acre recreational facility, with baseball fields, a BMX track, a skate park, a paint ball area, and an amphitheater; a call center; homes; and conspicuously, a nine-block street grid with two traffic circles, 46 parking spots, 37 crosswalks—but no buildings.

A cemetery that will never be the same

2007

Image of the mined area in 2007

burial ground

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2014

Image of the mined area in 2014

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2014

Image of the mined area in 2014

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The ancestors of Danny Cook have their graves atop a mountain in West Virginia—a mountain that happens to be full of coal. By law, coal-mining companies are required to give people access to relatives’ burial spots. That’s why everything but the area surrounding this small West Virginia cemetery has been mined.

“I’m angry,” Cook’s relative told the BBC. “I feel like my identity has been violated.”

But Cook’s relatives are the lucky ones. Most such cemeteries, which belong to small families with long lineages, aren’t in the official record. And if those families aren’t around to claim them, they’ve likely been lost by now.

Satellite and aerial images from the USDA, NOAA, USGS, and Planet. 3D terrain via Google

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