West Virginia environmental hero Larry Gibson died Sunday of a heart attack while working on his cabin on his beloved Kayford Mountain. He was 66. Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, has written a lovely tribute to him on our Compass blog. She recalls the taste she got, while on a tour of mountaintop removal site with him, of the constant attempts at intimidation that accompanied his efforts:
I'll never forget one of my later trips to Kayford, when a mining company pickup suddenly veered off the mine site and climbed an impossibly steep pile of rubble to park a foot away from our group and tell us that we needed to leave, for our own safety. Larry was cool and calm - he didn't pick a fight, but he didn't rush us away either. The mining representative's concern for Larry's well-being seemed laughable given that Larry's family property was surrounded by mountaintop removal on three sides. And this garden-variety intimidation certainly wouldn't faze Larry - it was nothing compared to what he had been subjected to over the years, including having his home shot at and ransacked, his truck run off the road (including once with a Washington Post reporter on board), and his dog shot and killed.
In spite of it all, Larry never backed down.
Readers of Sierra will recall Gibson from Daniel McGlynn's moving story in our March/April issue, "Move Not These Bones," about the family cemeteries in Appalachia destroyed by mountaintop-removal mining.
In June 2007, Gibson was giving a tour—something he continues to do—for people who'd come to Kayford to see what mountaintop removal looked like. From a distance he witnessed "a dozer going through a little green island in the middle of a wasteland." That was 300-year-old Stover cemetery (the family name of Gibson's great-grandmother), a small, forested patch with hundreds of graves that had survived nine years of mining. All around it were hard-cut highwalls, the cliffs created when heavy machinery scooped away earth and coal.
Gibson watched as the bulldozer pushed half the cemetery over a highwall. "The only other time when I felt that anger and pain was when I was seven and my brother was killed," he says. "I was going to get my guns." The full extent of the damage remains unknown because Gibson has not been allowed access to that part of the mountain. "Who does that? Who destroys a cemetery?" he says. "Now my people are part of the topsoil."
How to honor Larry Gibson's memory? You can act now to help us get Beyond Coal.
Photo by Shawn Poynter