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Keeper of the Mountains

By Chris Weller

There are 107 road signs bidding welcome to visitors as they enter the state of West Virginia. And while you can’t judge a state by its slogan, one does feel an irresistible sense of irony as the words “Open for Business”loom overhead on I-77 when crossing into the Mountain State towards the Coal River Valley. Even set against a backdrop of pristine Appalachian grandeur, the greeting seems grotesquely appropriate – bearing in mind that more than a quarter of the ridgetops in the southern West Virginia coalfields have already fallen mercilessly before the throne of King Coal. When you consider the overwhelming devastation wrought upon this land by the coal industry in a ghastly effective process known as mountaintop removal mining, “Welcome to His Stomping Grounds”seems no less a fitting salutation.
The unsettling and largely paradoxical “welcome”becomes easily forgotten, however, as flanked by forested ridgelines and awe-inspiring beauty the winding highway calls to attention a more familiar (albeit unspoken) greeting. “Welcome to Wild, Wonderful West Virginia.”These words graced the road signage as the state slogan from 1975 until 1991, homage to the ancient mountains that continue to nurture more than 200 years of Appalachian culture as well as our nation’s highest levels of biological diversity. According to a recent poll ordered by the state governor, nearly 49,000 West Virginians wish to see the words “Wild, Wonderful”placed on those signs permanently. But it’s not a highway sign or state slogan that brings the attention of so many lovers of wild, wonderful mountains to the Coal River Valley. There are far more pressing issues to be unearthed in these parts, and not a single one of those 107 road signs can adequately prepare the unsuspecting visitor for the “business”that happens here anyway. Besides, as long as the coal industry continues to systematically raze Appalachia to the ground – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – the West Virginia coalfields will indeed remain “Open for Business,”no matter what the signs read.
The mountains of southern West Virginia sit atop multiple thin layers of valuable low-sulfur coal, called seams. In order to extract the profitable seams of coal deposited beneath, the overlying rock must be removed, effectively flipping Appalachia upside down and often resulting in the upheaval of up to 800 feet of mountaintop. This is best accomplished through the use of a relatively inexpensive explosive called ANFO, a mixture of solid ammonium nitrate prills and fuel oil. But before the blasting can begin, residents who find themselves in the direct path of King Coal must first be bought out and displaced. Resistance to the coal industry’s advances is typically a fruitless and very expensive endeavor, especially when skilled lawyers, corrupt politicians, and mineral rights are not working in your favor. Many fold under the pressure or willingly flee their native soil for a better quality of life. A man by the name of Larry Gibson did neither.

Driving deeper into the heart of Appalachia, further south of Charleston – with its gold-domed capitol building, festivals, universities and minor league baseball team – one cannot help but feel drawn to the untamed, almost pervasive beauty unfolding just beyond the windshield. To the untrained eye, the slightest inkling of something foul happening in this neck of the woods may never even surface when simply passing through. Mountaintop removal doesn’t just happen behind closed doors. It happens behind precipitous wooded terrain, just beyond the wandering gaze of mobile America. Kayford Mountain is located in northwestern Raleigh County, between the waters of the Coal River and Kanawha River, approximately 35 miles southeast of Charleston. The mountain has been devastated at the hands of the coal industry, and yet it stands as an icon of the legal injustice being committed against the people of the West Virginia coalfields and abroad. Accessibility makes it the most visited and photographed mountaintop removal site in the state of West Virginia, and likely the nation. Kayford Mountain is also home to Larry Gibson. As a direct descendent of the Stanley family, Gibson’s ancestors have lived and died upon this land since the 1700’s. More than 300 of them are buried nearby in the family cemetery. Gibson has devoted his life to saving his 50-acre chunk of Appalachia, with its simple encampment of a dozen or so small shacks, house trailers, family cemetery and log cabin where he takes up residence. Massey Energy – the fourth largest producer of coal in the United States and most ruthless of them all – wants him off of it.
BRO: Why do you do what you do?
GIBSON: I want some justice for the people. I’ve been fighting this for 23 years. I spend more time off this mountain trying to save it than I do on it. They’re asking me to sacrifice this land so others can have electricity when this land never had it for the 60 families that once lived here? For that alone I wouldn’t do it. I say this to everyone. I say, “What do you have that’s so close to your own circle of life that you don’t have a price on it? What would it be for you? And if someone outside your circle of life forced their will on you, how far would you be willing to go to stand for it and what would you do?”I’m prepared at any given time to pay the price here. Violence, yes it’s here. Are you safe here? No, you’re not. I’m not even safe here. At any given time, anything can happen here.
BRO: Tell me more.
GIBSON: When they’re telling people propaganda about what you are and what you stand for, your danger is not going to come in a crowd of people. It’s going to come in a young man, after working really hard all day at a site and maybe having a beer on the way home. He has a child and one on the way, and he’s been told that I’m sitting on ten to fifteen years of work and I won’t let him have it. Because you see, they say this little piece of ground here has 39 seams of coal. They offered me $140,000 for this land in 1993. The same people who offered this to me told me it was worth a million dollars an acre then. The people that come by me in a vehicle shaking their fists at me and cussing at me, carrying on because of my bumper stickers – those are the ones that I want to have a chance to talk to. The ones that come by me and give me the “hi”sign and blow their horn; I don’t have to convince them. They already know. It’s just the ones who are scared of me. Because you see, scared people make dangerous people. They act without thinking. These scared people are the industry’s weapons. We’ve had 123 acts of violence out here, from vandalism to shootings, to killing a dog, to people getting assaulted. We had 76 counts of violence before we could even get the law to come. But by the time the law finally came, whatever was taking place was already done and over with because I’m isolated here.
BRO: Your mission has afforded you some encounters with the law yourself.
GIBSON: When I dress up to go on the road, I have neon shirts, neon hats. I’m a walking billboard. In the last several years I’ve been arrested seven times. I’ve been arrested five times in one day. And it was at George Bush’s rally in 2003 in Ripley, West Virginia, when he came to endorse mountaintop removal. I left my pocketknife here, my belt here, anything sharp here. Just took my driver’s license because I figured I’d be arrested. Sure enough, I got through the metal detectors, everything. As soon as I got close enough to the national media, I pull this sign out. And whoops, here we go. Out of five times, the Secret Service got me three and the State Troopers got me twice. “We are arresting you because you are not allowed to have a political sign at this rally.”It was a political rally. My shirts have “We are the Keepers of the Mountains. Love ’em or leave ’em, just don’t destroy them. If you dare to be one too…”and it has phone numbers, email address. On the front and back. I’m a walking billboard. Now, what’s your first right you have? Freedom of speech. You will never know how much freedom you’ve lost until it comes time that you realize that you need to use it. The reason I do these things, these outrageous things, is to encourage people. I don’t want to be anybody’s boss. These people have been told what to do all their damn lives. I want to be able to encourage these people to do something for themselves. To take control of their own lives. Contented people will never change a damn thing.
BRO: Many would say that you’re moving mountains for the cause. You formed a non-profit organization called Keeper of the Mountains, dedicated to funding your efforts to preserve and foster the values of mountain culture. You regularly host public officials, students and journalists on your property, giving lectures and leading guided tours of the area. And you’ve hosted some distinguished guests.
GIBSON: I’ve been interviewed by every major media outlet. Nightline has been here. Mike Wallace has been here. I’ve been interviewed by a CNN reporter five times. We had Robert Kennedy come here. He sat down there across the picnic table from me. We were sitting down there talking, and I said to this man, “You know Bobby, I have to tell you that your prestige does not impress me. I have to tell you that your name does not impress me. Nor does your position impress me.”I said, “What you do with your title will impress me.”In other words, we have a president that stole a title. We have a governor who bought a title – almost a million dollars he got from big money people. They haven’t showed me anything. A man’s title or position, you should never be impressed by it. What you should be impressed by is what the man does to represent other people. We’ve had Kathy Mattea, who is a nationally recognized country singer, come here. We put her up in an airplane. She gets off the airplane crying. I walk with her like I did you. She comes back out of the woods crying. She says, “Well, are you going to come to Charleston for the press conference?”I was looking for a homerun, you know. I was looking for her to get up there on the microphone and say, “This is wrong, what’s happening to the people here in West Virginia and elsewhere – Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia – it’s wrong!”Well, she gets up there on the microphone, and she says something like, “We should find a solution to this problem and we should try to get together and love one another.”Somebody got to her between the time she left here and the time she got to Charleston. Later on, I did find out that she was threatened on her business, as far as her income. Now, she flip-flopped on this. Well, we can’t do that. The citizens who live in this, or live under this or next to it every day who have to eat the dust, we can’t do that. God bless her for trying. God bless her for coming here and having good intentions. But we cannot bank on good intentions. We cannot eat good intentions. We cannot live a quality life on good intentions. Kathy Mattea, I’m sure she’s probably a wonderful person, but she did like a lot of other people. She put her own security in front of the people in the coalfields. I’m not looking for people like that. I’m looking for people who are willing to step up to the plate. I’m looking for folks who are willing to say, “People’s lives are worth more than a piece of coal.”

Great swaths of biologically diverse temperate forests and all that lies beneath are being leveled at a staggering pace that renders our significantly underestimated statistics obsolete, inadequate and incapable of illustrating the grim devastation in all its entirety. Appalachian forests are being scraped away and their mountains reduced to rubble at a rate of several ridgetops per week by accelerated clear-cutting and daily detonations of explosives up to 100 times the magnitude of those chosen by Timothy McVeigh to reap his destruction upon the Oklahoma City Federal building. Modest evaluations estimate that more than seven percent of Appalachian forests have been clear-cut to date and the onslaught is likely to double in the next ten years as mountaintop removal continues to harvest large profits.
For generations, the trees and undergrowth of these forests provided a place of solace and refuge for the families inhabiting the West Virginia coalfields. A timber contractor cuts them down. Next, the topsoil – with its high concentration of organic matter, microorganisms, and biological activity – is scraped away. An inch of nutrient-rich topsoil can take approximately 500 years to accumulate, and in a matter of moments is ripped from the Earth by powerful machinery. The timber, soil and other precious resources are rarely saved or harvested for use. The “overburden”is shoved into adjacent valleys, creating valley fills. The site is then prepared for blasting.
The perpetual blasting often places the adjacent communities in harm’s way, causing damage to homes above the earth and beneath it. Foundations are shaken and wells are compromised. Walls are cracked inside the home while “fly-rock”is known to cause serious damage and grave injury on the outside as it rains off of mining sites. All of this assessable damage doesn’t even take into account the noise pollution or immeasurable anxiety that accompanies life when a coal company takes up residency in your neighborhood. And even when the fly-rock doesn’t fall among the land surrounding a mountaintop removal site, the property values are sure to maintain their steady plummet anyhow.
BRO: With the coal industry dumping as much as three million pounds of explosives upon our nation’s beloved mountains everyday, wouldn’t you say that living next to any mountaintop removal site is like living in a war zone?
GIBSON: You know what got me up yesterday morning? Well, I had kind of slept in, because I had walked up to the family cemetery three or four times the previous day. It’s about a mile from here straight up the hill. So I was tired. At eight minutes to eight, a dynamite blast brought me right out of bed. The alarm clock didn’t, but a dynamite blast did. When you get caught four times in a dynamite blast on your own place, yeah it’s like living in a war zone.
BRO: Is it therefore safe to say that mountaintop removal mining removes more than mountains?
GIBSON: Of course you do know about the young boy who died three years ago in Appalachia, Virginia. A three-year-old boy. A mine – operating illegally, no permit at all, operating at night – rolled a boulder through a house. The boulder rolled over his bed and killed him, then stopped at his brother’s bed. No permits at all. No license. In 1993, a sixteen-year-old came through Tennessee on I-75, Brian Agujar I think his name was. A coal company was mining down there. Some fly-rock blasted 225 feet off the top of the mine site and came down through the car on the freeway and killed him. Statistically, we lose four people a year to dynamite blasts, and they don’t even work on the mine site. These figures come from the Citizen’s Coal Council in Washington, D.C. I can introduce you to people who are right now dying from black lung, who never worked in a mine. I can fill a funeral home full of people I knew myself who died of black lung, who did not work in a mine. All they did was live in the coalfields. In other words, you can get black lung from working in the mine and you can get black lung from living in the coalfields.
In the mining industry itself, the most endangered species is the underground miner, and then the mountains, and then they’re after what citizens we have left. The people have always been last on the list, as far as being concerned about. Coal is right now anywhere from 60 to 80 dollars a ton. We have coal cars going out of here with maybe 140 tons to a car, 300 cars a day. We have coal trucks going out every minute with 120,000 pounds. Every minute. You know, Alaska right now gives every eligible man, woman and child a yearly dividend for revenues of oil. The coal industry could do that too, and these people could maybe afford an education. They’d have some extra resources coming in. But they aint going to do that. Now how rich does rich have to be?
BRO: Well, it looks like they do a pretty good job of covering up their tracks.
GIBSON: They have a site here in West Virginia called Hobet 21. The Coal Association likes to take reporters there to say, “Yeah this is what it’s going to look like when it’s done.”They have imported fish, and they have imported animals. They have all kinds of green grass everywhere and pretty blue water. That’s because they’re feeding it chemicals. Once they stop, everything else stops. It’s the Cadillac of mountaintop removal sites. A model, as you might say.
BRO: You’re telling me that even though mountaintop removal is a process that’s known to cause catastrophic environmental disasters in the past – endangering property and lives – somehow this seems to go unnoticed in mainstream media?
GIBSON: The Exxon oil spill in Alaska was 11 million gallons. The coal sludge spill in Martin County, Kentucky was 306 millions gallons. Exxon was fined $2.5 billion. The coal company responsible for the Martin County spill was fined $5,000. This spill in Martin County, Kentucky was the largest single environmental disaster on record, and no one really knows about it.
BRO: What causes the dams to break?
GIBSON: When the dam broke at Buffalo Creek, it was something like 300 million gallons of toxic sludge, and it killed 125 people. Now they’re building a new dam in Coal River to hold a billion gallons of mining waste. It’s going to be 89 feet taller than the New River Bridge. What makes it even more dangerous is that it sits above a mineshaft, just like the one in Martin County, Kentucky.
We have a prison in Kentucky. They spent 40 million dollars just stabilizing the ground before they even started building the prison. You know what they call that prison now? They call it Sink Sink. The gun towers are leaning like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
In Welch, West Virginia back in 1982 they built a school on a reclaimed site. They ended up having to bring the fire department on the first day of school to cut the doors off the gym because they couldn’t get the kids out of the gym. It dropped almost three inches while they were in school. You see, mountaintop mining not only destroys the ground above, but it makes the ground so unstable below that you cannot do anything with it.
BRO: So mountaintop removal is also known to cause flooding.
GIBSON: I sat on my stage out here in 2001, doing a Fourth of July bit. I told the people that there was going to be a flood coming, and it’s going to wipe out homes and kill people. Eight days later, a flood came. It wiped out homes and killed people. The Cabinet Secretary we now have of the DEP in West Virginia, her name is Stephanie Timmermeyer, she took the position not even knowing what mountaintop removal was. So I wrote her a letter and invited her here. No fanfare, no reporters, nothing. So she came. She sat at the picnic table down at the park and the first thing she asks is, “How was it that you were able to predict the flood?”Somehow she had heard about it. I said, “Well, what a question.”And then I said to her, “Ray Charles could’ve predicted that flood. A blind man could’ve predicted the flood. When you take the trees off, the growth off, the brush off, everything off, and all you’ve got is rock, it’s like pouring a glass of water on this table. It’s going to roll off like a duck’s back.”And sure enough, the waters came off these mountains right here, down through these hollows here. They wiped out 600 houses across different parts of the coalfields. Killed ten people.
BRO: Why hasn’t anything been done to bring justice to these people?
GIBSON: Well, who cares? Not our government. Not our governor. He was a coal broker before and he’s still a coal man. Our president? He got at least a half-million dollars from big coal during his elections that we know of. Rockefeller, Byrd, Rahal, Shelley Moore Capito – the Representatives of West Virginia, our national representatives – they took money from coal, too. Rockefeller came here and ran for governor the first time. He ran opposing mountaintop removal and he lost. So he ran the second time in favor of mountaintop removal and miraculously he won. We have the most corrupt people I’ve ever seen. We have the very best politicians that money can buy in West Virginia. And they’ve been bought.
BRO: But if mountaintop removal is brought to an end, won’t that mean less jobs for workers in West Virginia?
GIBSON: Ok, here’s what they say about jobs. The industry says, “If you listen to the environmentalists, they’ll take your jobs. They have no solution for jobs.”Well, at the height of the United Mine Workers Union, we had 261,000 people. On the average they had four hundred men in a conventional mine. At Raccoon Tipple for instance, they had six hundred and some men. Now, one miner above ground can take five, maybe ten times the coal as an underground miner can because of the automation of labor. We’ve lost 231,000 or more union miners, and that’s 1997’s figures. So it’s considerably more by now. Over there, that site is operated by nineteen men. The remaining underground miners, they should be raising a voice to high heaven because they are being eliminated every day because of this type of mining and mechanism.
BRO: Do you have a solution?
GIBSON: The industry itself has provided jobs for at least another half-million people. For every permit that they’re destroying, every mountain, they’re supposed to have an infrastructure to go back on. In other words, reclaiming the land. If there is such a thing. 2.5 million acres in Appalachia have been destroyed and they’ve only done anything with less than five-percent of that in the last 22 years. So, we have 231,000 men who have lost their jobs, we could bring them back, put them back to work. And they’ve got enough work yet that they could still bring another 250,000 men added to that. A half-million people, and they still won’t get the job done for the next 300 years. There are 7,538 acres around me. 13 permits around me. There’s enough timber on these lands being destroyed that if they would’ve stockpiled it, we could even work these men in a furniture factory or a hardwood floor factory. But you know what the problem is? It’s what the industry is doing right now. They don’t want to pay the money out. They want the profit.
BRO: Well then what happens to the land that’s been destroyed? All we’re left with is acres of barren moonscape.
GIBSON: Once a mountaintop mine closes, the companies forfeit their bonds and abandon the site, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for the cleanup. They could put a half-million people to work restoring the lands like they’re supposed to. Instead, they sub-contract out the reclamation work to companies who quickly file bankruptcy, and the taxpayers are left to foot the bill.
BRO: Seems to me that mountaintop removal doesn’t sustain jobs or usable land, but it sure does create a lot of sludge.
GIBSON: They’re using five times the amount of water to clean the coal. So, you take and you clean one ton of coal and you’ve got to use five times the water. And they put anywhere from 62 to 100 different kinds of chemicals into that water. Mercury, zinc, lead, alloy, you name it, one way or another it finds itself to it. One gallon of mine waste weighs four times as much as one gallon of water. They inject this here mine waste back into the ground, into abandoned mineshafts. This hollow has 500 abandoned mineshafts that they know of, and ninety-percent or more have been filled with this liquid waste. For the last 14 years of my uncle’s 40 years in the mine, his job was pumping this liquid waste into the abandoned mineshafts. He lived in the hollow until he retired. He left this hollow because he was afraid there would be a blowout. A blowout is where a mountain breaks loose and what’s in it comes out. And it’s happened twice since he’s been gone. But they were able to get on top of it really quick.
BRO: And so they started building dams to contain the sludge.
GIBSON: They didn’t start building these dams above ground until mostly after they got all of these underground mines filled. We have almost 700-and-some dams in Appalachia now full of mine waste. Dams containing mine waste; not dams where you can drink the water. We have 25 of these dams within this area right here. Actually one of those dams is up there by the freeway where you got off a while ago. The one above the freeway down there holds 792 million gallons per capita, 330,000 gallons per acre. It sits 25 feet above a bed of mineshafts. For about ten years, it has been rated at the very highest it could be to break. We know that these people are in danger. The government knows that these people are in danger. But yet they’re still doing it. They’re putting these people in harm’s way.

Out of sight, out of mind – the notion that something is readily forgotten or dismissed as inconsequential if hidden from plain sight. Nothing good can be said of this principle. It sponsors the suffering of the world’s most invisible societies, the people more commonly know as “others.”The homeless. The hungry. Victims of genocide. American people who are made to drink contaminated water, breathe polluted air, and live in endangered communities where mountain blasting and flooding deals damage and death. It happens while everyone else looks at something prettier. The coal industry has founded a successful business model upon the “out of sight, out of mind”principle, and they’re making “others”of our Appalachian people – the children of America’s most ancient culture – as an unfortunate byproduct of profit, greed, and a blatant disregard for life.
BRO: You would say that mountaintop removal is more than an environmental emergency; it’s a humanitarian crisis that literally brings power to the rich on the backs of the poor.
GIBSON: I’m not a highly educated person as far as books, but it doesn’t take a highly educated person to go out there and look and see that what they’re doing is wrong. It’s devastation to all humanity. If it’s not good for me, how can it be good for anyone else? I spoke two years ago in Blacksburg, Virginia at a nuclear physicists conference. They invited me to come in and talk about alternative energy. The guy who was the head of the conference got up to kick it off and he said that “it is acceptable collateral damage that we should lose some people so others can live in the comfort they’re used to living in.”My people, collateral damage? No sir. My people are not collateral damage. I for damn sure am not collateral damage. I’m not settling for that. These are good, kind souls. Even the people doing the work in the mine sites. They’re just put in the position where they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Like one of my cousins said, “They give you a job, they tell you it’s going to kill you, but what do you do if you don’t work?”At the end, the rich get richer, and the poor get killed.
BRO: How is it that you’re able to continue?
GIBSON: I’ve been asked this question a lot lately. I’ve been shot at and everything. I’ve seen a lot of violence, trying to hold on. The one thing I try to tell my people is if you give up the fact that you’re right, then you choose to lose. You beat yourself. When I was a boy getting ready for a fight, and I’d say to myself, “I’m going to get whooped for sure.”And I’d get whooped for sure. You know what changed for me? When I got really, really angry. I fought back really hard and I thought I had a chance. The whole fact is, I’m right in this, in what I’m doing, and I’m trying to set an example for my people. I’m trying to break this thing they call “being content with life.”Don’t sit there and let it happen to you. If you sit there and let it happen to you then you’re part of the problem. Get up and change it. I know that one day I’ll lose my life for what I believe in. But I’d rather lose it for something I believe in than just sit and let it happen. My mother gave me birth; this land gives me life.

Gibson managed to save his beloved parcel when he established it as land trust. And now his tiny green island, surrounded by 12,000 acres of biologically barren moonscape, is protected for generations to come, never to be sold to Massey Energy or anyone else wishing to suck the life out of it. Sadly, there’s little hope for the scarred earth that daily swells closer and closer to his property line. In total, there are 187,000 endangered acres surrounding Gibson’s property, whether operating as active mountaintop removal sites or waiting in line for the dozer to see them next. But this man, short as he may be, with his third-grade education and heart of gold, refuses to give up the fight.

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