Anand Gopal

June 25, 2007

Larry Gibson has gotten used to the threats. Gibson, a Lilliputian mountaineer with an impressive belly and an equally impressive baritone drawl, reels off the list of attacks and calamities he has faced almost with a touch of boredom. “We’ve had up here at my place about 122 acts of violence, from shootings and the burning of my cabin, to shooting my dog to trying to hang the other dog I had,” he deadpans.

Sure enough, just yards from Gibson’s modest Appalachian home sits a dull gray camper, its facade pockmarked with tiny bullet holes. In the 22 years that he has lived atop Kayford mountain, part of the picturesque massifs that form the coalfields of West Virginia, Gibson has also faced beatings, sabotage, and death threats.

What Gibson has not gotten used to, however, is the view. The rolling, verdant countryside below Gibson’s home has been home to hundreds of isolated and close-knit Appalachian mining communities for generations. Much taller peaks that rose high above Gibson’s home and filled the surrounding scenery, however, once surrounded Kayford mountain.

Pop The Top

Since the 1980s, coal companies have engaged in a systematic destruction of the mountains, dubbed “mountaintop removal,” (MTR) in an effort to reach the abundant coal seams that lie beneath West Virginian soil. The peaks surrounding Kayford have all vanished, and with them have gone most of the area’s inhabitants. Kayford was once home to a thriving mining community; Gibson estimates that over 4,000 lived and worked here just decades ago.

Today there is just one inhabitant left–Larry Gibson. Gibson lives alone, weathering the attacks and intimidations of the nearby coal companies–led by coal giant Massey Energy–who have turned their attentions towards Kayford, one of the few mountaintops in the area that is still standing.

MTR mining, referred to by some as “strip mining on steroids,” is rapidly supplanting underground mining as the coal extraction method du jour. Where underground mining requires hundreds of miners, only handfuls of workers and massive quantities of explosives are needed to blast the tops off mountains.

The results are devastating. Just down the road from Gibson’s cabin, past a feeble, rusted gate which Gibson has christened the “Gate of Hell,” you can witness West Virginia’s future as it sits uncomfortably with its past. Where a mountain peak once rose 700 feet above Kayford, instead a spawning, empty chasm sits like an open wound in the countryside. Thousands of feet below, antlike cars and gargantuan machines navigate a barren terrain that looks more like a transmission from the Mars Rover than anything of this world. From this open pit, the coal travels along a labyrinth of shoots and conveyor belts into the basin below, termed the Coal River Valley, a narrow hollow where most Appalachianers make their home.

Killer King

In West Virginia, coal is king, and nowhere are the indelible footprints of King Coal more visible than Coal River Valley. Take the narrow, winding Route 3 south from nearby Racine and you will drive through tiny, unincorporated hamlets with names like Eden, Montcoal and Rock Creek. Pass through Sylvester and you will see massive covered silos–covered because residents sued coal companies after years of breathing in coal dust. Just down the road, you will pass homes covered in sludge, uninhabitable and without resale value.

Further south, take a stop at Whitesville and you will be in a modern-day ghost town. The decline in organized labor and the shift from underground to mountaintop-removal mining has thoroughly depressed living conditions and driven away businesses. Residents recall when Whitesville was the cultural and economic heart of the Coal River Valley–decades ago there were no less that 27 inns and bars in the mining town. Today there are two.

Follow Route 3’s twists and turns farther south and you will come across tiny Sundial, W.Va.; looming just yards behind Sundial’s Marsh Fork Elementary is a giant coal silo. The school, with over 200 students, also sits less than 500 yards from 2.8 billion gallon sludge impoundment dam owned and operated by Goals Coal Co., a Massey subsidiary. The whole complex forms a processing center for Massey coal, mined through MTR.

Ed Wiley, a Rock Creek resident and former coal miner knew something was amiss when his granddaughter kept coming home sick. The Appalachian native recalls one afternoon as he drove his sick granddaughter home from school. “I checked to see if she had her seatbelt on,” Wiley says. “She was all discolored really bad. She turned and looked at me–she had tears pouring down her face–and she said, ‘Gramps, these coal mines are making us kids sick.'”

Wiley started digging deeper into Massey Energy and its record at the school site, and the more he found, the more disturbing the picture became. The sludge impoundment carries to date 249 violations, and a dam rupture would instantly flood the nearby hollow and kill all local residents within minutes. One study determined that 88 percent of households surveyed had children who suffered health problems, including asthma and chronic bronchitis. Four teachers and three children at the school have died of cancer, and another child has spent time on a respirator. Wiley has made it his personal campaign to “stand up” for the children of Marsh Fork. In the summer of 2005 he did a sit-in outside of Gov. Joe Manchin’s office, and later that year Wiley trekked almost 500 miles from Charleston W.Va. to Washington, D.C., speaking along the way to all who would listen about MTR and Marsh Fork

Massey representatives and school officials declined to comment for this story. However, Massey has claimed that the coal silos actually prevent sickness since they house coal that would otherwise sit in open fields. And in preliminary studies, the EPA has not found excessive amounts of coal dust inside or outside the school. But in a state where the coal industry underwrites politics, and elected figures like Joe Manchin have extensive ties to the industry, Wiley, Gibson and other community activists are skeptical of the government’s promises to help. Massey has more violations than most of the other area coal companies combined, and in a field where the stakes are so large–39 seams of coal, worth close to $450 million, sit under Gibson’s land–Gibson, Wiley and other area activists have turned to a local environmental group, the Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW).

Breaking The Cycle

Judy Bonds, a CRMW co-director, recounts the organization’s founding with a barely disguised indignation. “Local environmental groups started looking into tree death from acid rain,” she says. “And when they went to look up in the mountains, there were no mountains–the mountains were gone!” CRMW was soon born, and the group threw itself into raising awareness of and organizing community resistance to MTR. Integrating youth and students into the movement was an early challenge. “If daddy doesn’t work for the coal industry, then your uncle does,” Bonds admits. Students at Marsh Fork and youth in the area had families that depended on Massey for their livelihood, so CRMW turned to colleges.

The group recently organized an “alternative spring break,” where youth and students from around the country converged in West Virginia to learn about the effects of MTR. On March 16 of this year, students attending the alternative spring break, together with members of CRMW and other community activists, occupied the state capitol building in Charleston in protest of Massey’s attempts to erect a second silo near Marsh Fork school grounds. Of the 50 protestors in attendance, 13 were arrested, including Gibson and Wiley.

CRMW has also organized a campaign, Mountain Justice Summer, that has brought youth and students together for concerted grassroots activism in Appalachian areas affected by MTR. Youths involved in Mountain Justice Summer have monitored coal permits and mining practices, engaged in listening projects and organized demonstrations like the March 17 action.

Their efforts are beginning to pay dividends. In the last three years, over 2,000 college students have come to see Ed Wiley and learn about MTR, news organizations from around the globe have hiked up Kayford to hear Larry Gibson’s story, and legislation is beginning to trickle in that curtails some of the worst of MTR. Just two months ago, a federal court ruled that MTR debris failed to comply with the Clean Water Act, and Massey has had its permit for the second coal silo revoked three times.

Activists attest, however, that much remains to be done. Bonds sees youth and students as playing a central role in the struggles ahead. “The youth have to be a part of this,” she insists, “because they need to understand it is their future–I’m not going to be here, but they will be.” And so as Larry Gibson spends solitary nights atop Kayford safeguarding Appalachia’s past, hundreds of students and community members are perched in the basin below, studying, debating and organizing, in an attempt to reclaim its future.

Learn more about this issue at I Love Mountains and Mountain Justice Summer.

Anand Gopal is a freelance journalist and writer. He is a founding editor of the Finland Station, a political magazine, and writes widely about current events. He lives in Philadelphia, Pa.