Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Meeting the Mountain Keeper

As we headed south from Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, to meet with Larry Gibson, the Mountain Keeper, we passed a billboard saying" West Virginia Coal, the Real Power behind America." We were about to find out how powerful King Coal really is in West Virginia. Larry's family has lived for 250 years on Kayford Mountain (37°58'), and he has become a guiding force in the battle to stop the surface coal mining known as Mountain Top Removal.
Larry's home is a small cabin in a leafy oasis in a sea of mining operations. There is no water because the mine blasting lowered the water table. It's hard to describe the devastation that Mountain Top Removal leaves behind. The mountain is turned inside out, the coal is dug out, and the debris is dumped into "valley fills," creating a huge wall where streams used to flow. Several thousand miles of West Virginia streams have been buried . Flattened, dead, unproductive rubble is left behind where mountains used to be, covered with a thin veneer of green, "restored" with an introduced Asian weed.
Mining jobs have disappeared with the mechanization. There are only about 18,000 coal miners left in W. Virginia, down from 150,000 in 1950. Water is polluted with heavy metals and acid drainage; sludge dams are a constant flooding threat to communities in the "hollers" below; blasting damages homes and coal dust sickens kids. It is heartbreaking.
Larry called coal "the most barbaric form of energy known to man." Over 1.5 MILLION acres on 51 mountains have been stripped and flattened in West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee in the last 20 years. You can fly for FIVE HOURS over the devastation.
Larry started telling people about Mountain Top Removal in the 1980s, figuring back then that once people saw what was going on, it would immediately stop. Twenty years later, his fearless dedication to the mountains in the face of intimidation from Big Coal and many personal threats, is truly an inspiration.
Tomorrow, Dave and I plan to join Larry and a group of local senior citizens on a protest walk to a mine site.

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