Related on MNN: Environmental problems solved via Google Earth

The online journey through an intriguing website called I Love Mountains begins with entering your zip code and determining if you — despite living in a progressive, coastal city, for example — rely on power derived from mountaintop removal (MR).

Your city, power utility company, and its coal sources pops up on a Google Earth map — a popular interactive mapping software created by the search engine company Google. Click on a mine and stats appear about the mountain it has leveled. Or ‘visit’ nearby communities whose personal stories and pictures document the effects of 1,000 miles of buried streams, polluted water, and health problems caused by MR.

By the end, users can be experts on the environmentally devastating coal mining practice of MR, which, as the term implies, scrapes off a mountain’s top in order to reach the coal beneath. The debris is dumped into surrounding valleys and streams, destroying entire watersheds.

Behind the website are seven grassroots groups in Appalachia campaigning to end the environmentally devastating mining technique through passage of the Clean Water Protection Act, which now has 128 congressional co-sponsors. By using all-the-rage technology, the coalition’s I Love Mountains site is inspiring people to take a couple of very old-fashioned steps, such as writing to congressmen and joining its movement for environmental justice.

While the site first launched in September 2006, its most recent upgrade this November, which connects coal-burning utilities to residential zip codes, has succeeded in motivating thousands of citizens to write letters. “The reality now is that a lot of people have been calling, and it’s sort of a non-stop rush to keep up,” says Matt Wasson, conservation director of Appalachian Voices, the non-profit overseeing the site.

Google Earth agreed to partner with I Love Mountains and included the site’s National Memorial for the Mountains, the project’s first phase, as part of the Google Earth map software. The Memorial appears on a map of the eastern states as a field of 450 American flags spanning the Appalachian Mountains, each commemorating a ‘decapitated’ mountain. Zoom in close to a single mountain and there’s a step-by-step explanation of how machinery literally scrapes away peaks, and aerial photos of a site the size of Manhattan.

I Love Mountains was conceived when a donor asked the groups to produce a documentary film about MR, and they replied that a better investment would be a campaign website. Under the guidance of consultant Matt Gross, who managed the online campaigns for presidential hopefuls Howard Dean and more recently John Edwards, the site was created for a cost of about $25,000.

Ironically, the campaign will return to a version of the original film-making idea when in a few weeks it launches a series of short YouTube videos on the Google Earth map. The clips document communities, such as Ansted, West Virgina and Guali Mountain; a town near Chatanooga in eastern Tennessee; and Bennum, Kentucky, currently in the throws of battle to save their local mountains, explained Benji Burrell, the video project’s technical coordinator.

One of the stories that will be featured already has a happy ending. Native Kentuckian Daymon Morgan says while he doesn’t use the Internet and has never actually seen the I Love Mountains website, he can put up a mighty feisty fight. In fact, last spring Morgan fought to stop MR 500 feet from his house of 18 years and the property where he keeps a medicinal herb garden for student tours.

He filed a complaint against the International Coal Group (IGC), a coal mining company, and says that at a recent hearing, “I had enough people there from KFTC [Kentuckians for the Commonwealth] come speak on my behalf the company didn’t know what to do.” Morgan won the fight and the IGC left his mountain in tact.

“There are some real crusty characters in the stories,” says Wasson, “really smart, bright, fun, people you’d just love to spend Thanksgiving dinner with. When people see that, I hope it brings us miles ahead in making this [issue] national.”

Story by Victoria Schlesinger. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008