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July 13, 2009

Confrontation in West Virginia

Larry-Gibson 

Larry Gibson lives on a 50-acre homestead on the side of Kayford Mountain in West Virginia that has been in his family for 200 years. More than 300 of his ancestors are buried in the cemetery on Kayford Mountain. 

The mountains of southern Appalachia are home to a rich cultural heritage, as well as some of the most bio-diverse forests on earth. They are also rich in coal, and since 1986, mountaintop removal mining (MTR) has been steadily demolishing Kayford Mountain, leaving behind the moonscape pictured below.

Kayford-Mountain-WV

Larry's homestead used to be surrounded by peaks and ridges supporting deep forests and mountain streams. The Gibson's haven't moved, but their house now occupies the highest point of land around, as the surrounding 12,000 acres of Kayford Mountain have been blasted to smithereens. The Gibson's cabin is the right-most structure in the settlement pictured below. In 2007 a portion of the cemetery where the Gibson's relatives are buried was bulldozed.

Larry-Gibson's-homestead

For more than 20 years Larry has held out against coal company efforts to buy him out, meanwhile helping found the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, which celebrates and nurtures mountain culture. The foundation also allows him to travel the country spreading the word about MTR. Larry welcomes concerned citizens, students, journalists, and government officials to visit his homestead to see first-hand what mountaintop removal does to the land.

Larry also helps host the Mountain Keepers Festival over the July 4 weekend at Stanley Heirs Park on Kayford Mountain, where people camp out, learn about the mountains, and share food, stories, music, and solidarity.

This year, a group of people dressed in T-shirts issued by the Massey Energy Company crashed the party, intimidating and verbally threatening festival-goers. They were apparently unarmed, but one half-naked man in their company rubbed meat all over himself and threatened to slit people's throats before Massey employees who were recognized as local residents led him away.

The incident was captured on video. [Viewers, note that this clip contains strong language and is not suitable for children.] State police were contacted, but by the time they arrived two hours later the intruders were nowhere to be found. The video has been forwarded to the West Virginia State Police and the U.S. Department of Justice.

It is not clear whether the intruders acted on their own or were encouraged by Massey, the largest operator of MTR sites in the state. It should also be noted that not all of the party-crashers behaved threateningly; the ones who led the shirtless man away were apparently embarrassed by his behavior, and one member of the Sierra Club's Kentucky Chapter who was in attendance reported that there was "an exchange of barbecue" before the Massey crew drove off.

What is clear is that the practice of mountaintop removal is deeply divisive to residents of southern Appalachia, often pitting neighbor against neighbor and even driving a wedge between family members. Learn more about mountaintop removal mining and how we can move beyond coal.

Kayford Mountain photos by Vivian Stockman, courtesy of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

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