“See these mountains right here?” Larry Gibson said as he gazed over miles of flattened land. “They used to be taller than the one we’re standing on.”
Gibson’s family history on Kayford Mountain goes back to ancestral times. He now uses that land to educate people about Mountain Top Removal (MTR).
“Whenever you all come to anything, the best weapon you can have is what you’ve got in your head,” Gibson said.
MTR is an alternative mining technique that blasts off the tops of mountains in order to reach coal. It has been in practice since the 1960s, and was driven by the high demands for fossil fuels during the petroleum crises in the 1970s.
For 20 years now, Gibson has fought back against MTR in West Virginia. He refuses to sell his fifty-plus acres to coal mining companies, for which his property is now encircled by coal mining sites.
“I’ve got a fortress here. I’ll tell you why: I’m staying, man. Every room I’ve got, I’ve got protection,” he said.
He asserts that the realities of MTR are what drove him to seek change.
Every blast into the Earth’s crust releases toxins into the air. The exposed particles, usually made up of sulfur compounds, are hazardous to human health and are likely to settle on nearby properties. As of a result, the rates of lung cancer, chronic heart and kidney disease have all increased near mining sites.
Fly-rock is another issue connected with mine explosions. Rocks blown from mines are unpredictable and can be as large as a full-sized pick-up truck. In an event that these fragments are over-shafted, they could potentially block roads, stream ways, or even worse, take lives. This possibility leads to the alteration of landscapes, where species are forced to adapt to their new environments. In a number of cases, some have even become endangered.
By law, the shape of the mountain must be pieced back together. Coal companies try to get around this regulation by using a fast-growing topsoil “substitute”. This makes it tough for trees and vegetation to grow, and it is not stable enough to build on. Excess rock is also displaced into valleys below, over streams and spring water, causing permanent loss of ecosystems and an increased release of metal ions, electrical conductivity, and pH. Destructive particles are responsible for eating away at the bones of natural and man-made structures. On that note, chronic pulmonary disorders and hypertension have been diagnosed in humans as a result of this chemically polluted water.
Gibson is currently suffering from the effects of MTR on his own property. Large cracks on surfaces caused by underground mines are dangerous to his home. Mine explosions have made his water undrinkable; the air he breathes has become contaminated, and he is unable to visit his family’s grave site without acquiring permission from the coal company (the coal company took over this site). For these purposes, Gibson has risked his life.
“You know what’s really cheap here? That has no value whatsoever?” he said. “Life: the most precious thing you need here! And we cannot survive without water and air… Why do we, in the Appalachians, got to negotiate for all these things?”
In order to spread the word about MTR, Gibson founded a number of organizations, two of which include the Stanley Heirs Foundation and The Keeper of the Mountain. These groups “aim to educate and inspire people to work for healthier, more sustainable mountain communities and an end to mountaintop removal.” He is also affiliated with many other social action groups, such as Mountain Justice and Citizens Against Coal Ash.
His advocacies; however, come with great penalties. Gibson has literally put his life on the line. One of his dogs was shot, while another was hung from his porch. His cabin was burned, and he was raced off the road in his truck. He’s been beaten up, and shot at in drive-by shootings, but he refuses to give up.
Gibson is no longer just fighting for his land. He is fighting for human rights to live in peace without the effects of MTR.
“I’ve been shot at and everything, but I’m still here! You cannot back out of what you believe. If you give that up, then what do you own? What do you have that belongs to you? Once you give that up, it belongs to somebody else. If you give that up, then you have truly lost,” he said.
But it doesn’t mean the coal mining companies are necessarily “bad”. The problem with the sustainability of coal mines is that nearly half of the electricity generated in the United States is produced by power plants fueled by coal. More importantly, West Virginia claims one of the highest percentages of coal fuel use in the country. The loss of the coal industry would devastate West Virginia’s economy, where unemployment is high and jobs are scarce.
Nonetheless, MTR not only accounts for less than five percent of fuel production in America, but it offers less occupational positions than any other mining technique. The controversy is that standard mining methods may endanger more workers.
The most that the coal companies can do is to be responsible for the environment, but they’ve still got a long way to go before they even consider leaving the mountains. And in that case, Gibson will continue to march on.
“I’ve got rights too. I’ve got rights. I’m somebody, and I don’t need no damn body to tell me I’m somebody. Shit, I count, you know?” he said.
In the year 2012, the United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that MTR will clear over 2,200 square miles of Appalachian forests.
“If you got somebody who’s approaching you today, and you want to stand for something, and they say to you, ‘How do you feel today? Do you still feel like what you’re fighting for is worth it?’ And if you answer like he wants you to, you will take that day with you for the rest of your life. You should answer like you should… You should never let intimidation work… Let this individual know that you’re talking to somebody who still wants to be there… you come to stay… you brought your lunch.”