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.