Matt Wasson, the conservation director for the group, Appalachian Voices, can offer a vivid mental image of the size of a typical mountaintop-removal coal mine. "You take a two- or three-mile swath between Boone and Blowing Rock and level every mountain and dump it in the valley to have the scale of what's going on," he said.
Now, the new Internet tool allows people to see what he has been describing to them.
Users can visit www.appvoices.org, which uses Google maps and shows how the power plants and coal mines are connected.
Mountaintop removal is a form of surface or strip mining that uses explosives to take off ridge tops to get to the coal seams. The debris is often scraped into river valleys beside them.
Northwest North Carolina doesn't have enough coal for mountaintop-removal operations here. The nearest mountaintop-removal mine to Boone is 68 miles away, in a straight line, in Wise County, Va. Others are in West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
The new Web tool shows the direct connections between mountaintop removal and people in Northwest North Carolina. For instance, using the tool and typing in the downtown Winston-Salem zip code 27101, shows that Duke Energy Corp., which provides power in that zip code, uses coal from mountaintop-removal mines to fuel the Belews Creek power plant in Stokes County.
For some areas, the Web site shows satellite images of the mines. In other cases, the maps also include access to high-resolution aerial photographs, allowing users to zoom in close enough to see the trucks in the mines.
Marilyn Lineberger, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy, said that any utility having coal-fired plants would likely be listed on the site.
"We're obligated to purchase the fuel at the most reasonable cost for our customers," she said. The company gets about half of its coal from underground mines and about half from surface mines, which include those that use mountaintop removal.
The Belew Creek power plant would not buy directly from a coal mine, but would get coal from Duke's central fuel purchase from various mines. She said that the company is sensitive to concerns about the mountaintop-mining method and is monitoring it carefully. While the maps and photographs show the sheer scale of the mines, the accompanying stories show how mountaintop removal has affected people who live near the mines.
Appalachian Voices, based in Boone, has made mountaintop removal one of its core issues since it was founded 10 years ago. The nonprofit organization worked for more than six months to develop the technology for the new Web site, and worked in partnership with eight other environmental groups that gathered photographs and interviewed people.
Helping document the human toll were the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, Coal River Mountain Watch, Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and other groups. The story of 71-year-old Mary Farley of Wharncliffe, Va., is told on the Winston-Salem link, about how the blasting woke her from her sleep and caused a crack in her kitchen wall.
The Beverly Hills zip code link shows that the area's provider, California Edison Co., buys coal from companies engaged in mountaintop removal. The story there tells of a 2004 tragedy in which a half-ton boulder dislodged by a strip-mine bulldozer rolled down a slope and crashed through a house, killing 3-year-old Jeremy Davidson as he slept in his bed in Wise County, Va.
Wasson said he wants people who use the new Internet tool to see what's going on in people's lives.
"My biggest hope is they're going to make their way into the human side of that and see their connection to the people on the other side of the light switch," he said, adding, "I think anybody who does that will think cheap energy is doing incredibly wrong things to some fellow Americans."