When mining companies level West Virginia mountains to get at the coal beneath, whole towns disappear. When a Michigan power plant burns coal to make electricity, it triggers asthma attacks among children living nearby. When coal ash blows onto a Paiute reservation in Nevada, elders die. Sierra asked people across the land to describe how the world’s dirtiest energy source has disrupted their lives— and what they’re doing to stop it.
Mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia have demolished an estimated 1.4 million acres of forested hills, buried an estimated 2,000 miles of streams, poisoned drinking water, and wiped whole towns from the map. Lindytown, West Virginia, once home to dozens of families, is now an isolated, lonely place, with only one original family remaining. Everyone else sold out to Massey Energy (now Alpha Natural Resources), which was laying waste to a nearby mountain. West of Lindytown, a mountaintop removal mine caused the population of Blair to fall from 700 people in the 1990s to fewer than 50 today, according to the Blair Mountain Heritage Alliance.
Below are images and descriptions of those affected by mountaintop removal in West Virginia. Photos and captions courtesy of Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures for Sierra Club.
An aerial view of the mountaintop removal mine that caused all but one family in Lindytown, West Virginia, to sell their homes and move away. The house where Roger and Quinnie Richmond still live is circled.
Mining firms must maintain a 100-foot protective zone around burial grounds. The nearby Jarrell Cemetery, where Cook's great grandfather is buried, is surrounded on all sides by a mining operation.
Unsullied mountains in southern West Virginia.
Artifact of a happier time: a basketball backboard on what was once a residential lot in Lindytown, West Virginia.
Not far from his Bandytown home, Leo Cook visits the Webb Cemetery, where several of his relatives are buried.
Tori Wong of Virginia traveled with friends to the West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston to participate in the Memorial Day protest against mountaintop removal mining.
Just down the road from Lindytown, Leo Cook of Bandytown, West Virginia, looks out a window in the now-vandalized building that once served as the meeting hall for members of Local 8377 of the United Mine Workers of America. During the years the building was in use, Cook sometimes polished its wooden floors.
Donna and Charlie Branham at their Lenore, West Virginia home. ''It's a hard decision to take your hair off,'' Donna said. ''But it's not as hard as watching them destroy my land, watching them destroy my children's future.''
Donna Branham of Lenore, West Virginia, before and after she had her head shaved on the steps of the West Virginia State Capitol to protest mountaintop removal mining.
An abandoned home in Bandytown, West Virginia.
Charles Beller on the porch of his home. Dust, noise, and explosions from a nearby mountaintop removal mine have caused Blair's population to dwindle from 700 people in the 1990s to fewer than 50 today, according to the Blair Mountain Heritage Alliance. ''That comes back and haunts me to this day, '' Beller said of his time working on the nearby mine. ''I was a part of destroying my own community.''
Trainloads of coal in Williamson, West Virginia.
Marilyn Mullens of Cool Ridge, West Virginia, conceived and organized the Memorial Day protest against mountaintop removal mining: ''We just want people to be aware. Know that every time you turn on a light switch ... someone here is paying for that with dirty water, with air that they can't breathe.''
Hershel Aleshire of Blair, West Virginia: ''Back when I was a kid, we made our own fun. We fished and we played ball and rode horses. We run after girls. Some of it I ain't gonna tell ya. Turn the camera off, I still ain't gonna tell ya.''
Paula Swearengin gets her head shorn by the late Larry Gibson, founder of the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation. On Memorial Day 2012, Swearengin and Gibson joined more than a dozen women (and a few men) on the steps of the West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston to have their heads shaved to protest mountaintop removal mining. ''Watch out, King Coal,'' Swearengin said, ''because here come the Queens of Appalachia.''
Not long ago, Lindytown, West Virginia, was home to dozens of families, many with roots there dating back generations. In 2008, Massey Energy (now Alpha Natural Resources), which was blasting the top off a nearby mountain to get at the coal beneath, began buying out residents and razing their homes. Today, only one original family remains: Roger Richmond and his mother, Quinnie.