The Appalachian Mountains lost a hero on Sunday, September 10. Larry Gibson, the face of the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, died of a heart attack while working on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia. His family ancestry on Kayford goes back to the 1700s and, since 1986, Gibson had fought tirelessly to stop the mountaintop removal mining that has desecrated the peaks surrounding his home.
Scores of mountaintops—more than 500 of them, according to environmental law firm Earthjustice—have been removed, literally, through this aggressive strip mining that starts by denuding peaks and then blasting away rock to get to the rich veins of coal beneath. After retiring early from General Motors due to an injury, Gibson had moved back home to Kayford and discovered that the land all around his ancestral home was essentially destroyed.
He started Keeper of the Mountains, an anti-mountaintop removal mining group, and fought this type of mining doggedly. His outspokenness earned him tremendous media exposure—he regularly gave tours of the mining areas to groups of reporters, and can be seen in a number of documentary films—but it also earned him numerous death threats. Gibson fully expected to lose his life during the battle to protect Appalachian peaks.
With the sudden passing of its 66-year-old leader, what will become of the fight against mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia and across Appalachia?
To some extent, Gibson had been planting the seeds for an ongoing battle all along. He would tell visitors to his home: “If you come here and see this and you don't do anything about it, then you've wasted my time. You have to share what you've seen, what you've heard. You have to do something to help."
Vivian Stockman, spokesperson for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and a close ally of Gibson’s, says her group, Keeper of the Mountains and others will pick up the torch. “We’re not going to give up. No one who was touched by Larry is going to give up,” she says.
And as the coal industry’s interests start to spread into untapped sections of West Virginia's mountains, the movement against aggressive mining techniques is spreading as well. According to a recent story in Sierra magazine, residents of the town of Fayetteville, West Virginia, about an hour and half by car from Kayford Mountain, are joining the resistance.
Fayetteville has long been a draw for kayakers—thanks to its proximity to the New River Gorge, and access to the Upper Gauley river—and for climbers and, more recently, mountain bikers. But a growing tourism industry in Fayetteville is bringing more lodging and mainstream attractions, such as zip-lines, ATV tours and whitewater rafting operations, to the area. Thus, it is emerging as a tourism hotspot.Tourism and mountaintop removal mining, obviously, don’t mix, and some locals who have grown up in mining are starting to see the economic longevity and sustainability of tourism, as compared to mining. In the Sierra article, Jesse Wood interviewed Ray St. Clair, a West Virginia native and former coal miner, who now runs a private campground in the area. "Without recreation, we'd be hurting," he told her. "We'd be dead."
The support of people like St. Clair, who has roots in mining, and that of other Fayetteville locals in the emerging tourism industry is vital to the efforts of anti-mining advocacy groups. A company called Frasure Creek Mining (a subsidiary of Indian mining concern Essar Group) has obtained some permits for surface mining operations near Fayetteville. It still needs to obtain more to begin operations and some Fayetteville locals are joining forces with anti-mining groups to fight the project.
In Appalachia, an estimated 2,400 miles of streams have been buried through aggressive surface mining, so boaters have a good deal to worry about as mining encroaches the New River Gorge and the Gauley.
"There is huge enthusiasm for tourism and it’s the fastest growing industry in Fayette County," says Stockman. But she says gaining the support of local politicians and trying to bridge the divisions between pro-mining and anti-mining West Virginians is where the real work begins.
"The state does nothing about bringing us out of the [coal-based] mono-economy," she says. "There are all these signs that these boom times of coal are on the way out, but politicians are beholden to the industry. Around here the word 'treehugger' is an insult. Environmentalist is a dirty word," she says.
When opponents tire of the fight, they should look to these outtakes of an interview, below, with Larry Gibson, recorded for the documentary YERT: Your Environmental Road Trip.
"Use your anger to get over your fear," said Gibson.
—Mary Catherine O'Connor