High in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, on a small island of green above a desert of rock and mud, a man in blue jean overalls wanders throughan overgrown cemetery and struggles to contain his emotions.
“What happened to the graves down here?” the man asks. “There were three graves over here and one over here.”
Larry Gibson has the desperate sound of a man who has just realized a terrible loss. He points to an area where the forest ends abruptly, having beenscoured by enormous bulldozers. He wonders if the driver even saw the headstones.
Gibson, an environmental activist in his mid-50s, is on an inspection of his family cemetery that has been isolated by mountaintop removal (MTR) mining. He has been asking for permission to inspect the cemetery for a year and a half. Finally, on August 4, 2007, he is allowed to visit, and his worst fears are confirmed. Most of the graves are still in place, covered with vinesand short plants, but there have been losses.
“The people who are buried over there – or who were buried over there – are my great-great-great-grandparents,” Gibson says, his voice choking. “It’s my history they’re wiping out – 200years of my past.”
The land that spawned Gibson and generations before him is very different today than it was only a few years ago. Not far away from the cemetery, the earth suddenly drops off hundreds of feet in jagged man-made cliffs of gray-brownrock.
Looking across the gaping mine site, running creeks fall from the living edge of the forest. The waterfalls appear tiny in the distance, and make no sound against the monstrous diesel cacophony of gigantic earth movers that eat awayat the mine pit below.
Down in the pit, the earth is laid open like a cadaver on a dissecting table, and near the bottom, coal seams stretch horizontally like thick black wounds.
This is all that is left of the mountain that Gibson grew up with – a few dozen headstones rising above the rest of the land like a cemetery in the sky.
In West Virginia alone, MTR has destroyed more than 300,000 acres and buried over 1,200 miles of headwater streams. Coal companies there use nearlyfour million pounds of explosives every day – the equivalent of 32 Hiroshimas.
Opponents of MTR argue that it is not necessary, that even if coal has to be mined, underground mining in the East would still be profitable and would leave most of the forest and mountains intact. But the economics of the industry have left the coal mining companies unconvinced. Mountaintop removal is extremely lucrative – with an average take of 10,000 tons of coal, each acre is worth at least half a million dollars.
The larger issue involves long-term damage and the value of clean water and a healthy ecosystem. Streams below MTR sites are poisoned and can’t sustain life, while the flat expanses of reclaimed lands are not useful for agriculture and are dangerous for construction.
The damage from MTR has sparked a furious national debate on the future of energy policy and the folly of destroying long-term environmental assets for short-term private gain.
“I do now understand the Native Americans who lost everything – their culture and heritage – because of profit,” Gibson says with unfathomable sadness. “It’s genocide. Yes, that might sound harsh and cruel – but it’s what they are doing here, wiping out our cemeteries and poisoningout people. We have got to get up and fight.”
Like hundreds of others directly affected by MTR mining, Gibson never dreamed he would become an environmental activist. When he retired from General Motors 15 years ago, he was content to return to the mountains of his childhood,thinking he would roam the woods hunting and fishing.
His family had owned 500 acres on Kayford Mountain just south of Charleston, WV, for more than 200 years. Most of the land was lost early in the 20th century, around the same time that Gibson family members worked in the mines in CabinCreek and Mother Jones rallied the union there.
Gibson grew up around Kayford Mountain in the 1950s, poor but happy, with the freedom of a woodsman’s way of life. It was a beginning more akin to the 18th century than the 21st. His parents took him to Ohio when he was young, but when he came back, he put 50 acres in a trust so that it could never be mined. He worked to spruce up the cemetery as well, even though acoal company owned the surrounding land.
“My mother gave me birth, but the land gave me life,” he is fondof saying.
Then the blasting started – a few miles from his cabin, then closer. Thousands of pounds of high explosives sent boulders flying through the air every day. It was the sound of one way of life ending and a struggle beginning. Gibson volunteered with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and began organizingto halt MTR.
When he first started speaking out against MTR mining, Gibson says, he couldn’t get his own relatives to listen to him. Now he is a veteran of the environmental movement – organizing, marching, sitting in, andspeaking out.
Gibson was arrested last spring, along with 18 others, for refusing to leave the West Virginia Capitol without talking to the governor. A few weeks later, Gibson joined a delegation from the coalfields to the UN Commissionon Sustainable Development.
“One of reasons I went to UN was to help with the briefing about how the US is destroying its own people,” Gibson says. “The president of the United States might be mistreating people around the world, but they don’t know how badly his is mistreating people here. He’s wipingout a whole culture. He’s wiping out Appalachia.”
Only a dozen miles away from Gibson’s Kayford Mountain, another symbol of MTR mining has also drawn attention. An elementary school sits directly below and in the path of nearly three billion gallons of coal slurry sludge. If the dam broke catastrophically – something that has happened in the past – there would be no time to evacuate the 230 students and teachers from the school.
There are over 400 such coal sludge dams in Appalachia, each of them far larger than the dam that burst in the famous Buffalo Creek disaster of 1972, killing 125 people.
A few years ago, Ed Wiley, a grandparent of one student, began worrying about the high incidence of sick days at the school. With his wife, Deborah, and Coal River Mountain Watch, he launched a campaign to rebuild the school elsewhere. In the summer of 2006, Wiley marched almost 500 miles from Charleston, WV to Washington DC to draw attention to the situation.
“The kids at Marsh Fork don’t have a future, they don’t have a tomorrow,” Wiley said as he started the march. Later, he met with West Virginia politicians who expressed concern but promised nothing.
Wiley started the Pennies of Promise campaign to raise money for a new school. For his efforts, he won the Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage this year. The award recognizes those who, “with integrity and at some personal risk, take a public stand to advance truth and justice, and who challenge unsatisfactory conditions in pursuit of the common good.”
Like Wiley, Maria Gunnoe also won the Callaway Award this year. A resident of the town of Bob While, WV in the Coal River valley, Gunnoe works with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and fights for land that has been in her family for five generations. In 2000, mountaintop removal operations began at the edge of her property, throwing rock and dust into the air and clogging a nearby stream with silt. The property is now constantly flooded over and impossible to use for agriculture.
“I heard a rumor that I would regret not selling my access bridge (to the coal companies),” she says. “But I still don’t regret it.” She notes that there are six sludge dams upstream of her house, and if any them breaks, there aren’t even warning systems in place. “It’s every man for himself,” she says.
The stereotype of Appalachian people as shiftless hicks is false, she says, but it allows people to look the other way when exploitation occurs. “They can do this to the land, thinking it’s OK, because a hillbilly from West Virginia lives in the middle of it,” she says, her eyes filling with tears. “These tears are not of sadness – they’re tears of rage for what they did to my home, and to my culture.”
While individuals like Gibson, Wiley, and Gunnoe keep the spotlight on the coal operations near their homes, action is taking place on other fronts.
MTR opponents are pushing for federal legislation called The Clean Water Protection Act, a proposal that would stop mountaintop removal mining by enforcing the original 1977 Clean Water Act that prohibits dumping of waste into waterways. The Bush administration redefined parts of the law to allow mountains to be dumped into valleys. The Clean Water Protection Act has more than 90 co-sponsors and is being considered by the House Transportation Committee’s subcommittee on water resources and environment. Appalachian groups are busy seeking more sponsors for the legislation.
At the same time, anti-MTR organizations are taking the fight to court. For years, environmental activists were unsuccessful in challenging the impact of MTR through the Clean Water Act. But in July 2007, a federal court stopped the Corps of Engineers from issuing MTR permits. While the decision awaits the usual appeals, activists are suing coal companies for flood damage caused by mountaintop removal mining. Also in the works are dozens of lawsuits for personal injuries from drinking contaminated water.
It appears that increased national attention about the effects of MTR (ABC’s “Nightline,” The New York Times, and The Washington Post have all done major stories in the last year) are starting to reap gains. Although usually quite lax, the EPA surprised environmentalists in May 2007 by bringing a federal lawsuit against Massey Energy Co. (one of the largest coal companies) alleging thousands ofviolations of the Clean Water Act in the course of MTR mining.
“It’s hard for people outside the Appalachian coalfields to understand the incredible level of courage it takes for Ed Wiley, Larry Gibson, Maria Gunnoe, and others like them to speak out against the powerful coal industry,” says Mary Anne Hitt, executive director of Appalachian Voices, a regional nonprofit environmental organization working to end mountaintop removal. “They’re some of the most determined people I’ve ever met, and they just keep fighting for their homes and families, even in the face of intimidation and death threats. They are my heroes, and heroes to many people who have the privilege to work with them.”
Gibson’s voice carries depth, compassion and the steel that comes of suffering.
“You young people, you have a chance here to change the world…” he says to groups of college students who come by the busload to Mountain Justice Summer non-violent training at the family land trust site where he lives. Hechallenges them directly:
“I say to you, and to you, what do you hold so precious in your own circle of life that you don’t have a price on it? What would it be? For me, it’s Appalachia. For me, it’s the mountains. For me, it’s a whole way of life that they’re wiping out here, and nobody seems tocare.”
“But I am right,” he says. “And I will nevergive up the fight.”
Bill Kovarik is the editor of Appalachian Voice, a journal of environment and culture for the Southern Appalachian region. He also teaches journalismat Radford University in southwestern Virginia.
For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.