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Kayford Mountain, WV

Larry Gibson is a “CNN Hero”

August 15, 2007

A True Hero: 22 years and going strong!

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CNN Heroes debuted the story “Larry Gibson: Defending the Planet” on Tuesday, 8/14, during Anderson Cooper 360. It will also be aired this Thurs 8/16 and Sun 8/19 all day ON CNN & CNN HEADLINE NEWS. (2 separate channels). An extended version will be available on the CNN Hero’s website next week.

For more than 200 years, Larry Gibson’s ancestors have lived on Kayford Mountain in the Appalachians of West Virginia. Today, he is fighting to protect his coal-rich land from mountaintop blasting and the consequences he fears it would have for the environment.

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High Resolution Historic Image Overlays

People often ask, “Are there pictures of the mountains before mountaintop removal coal mining destroyed them?” Thanks to the United States Geologic Survey and Google Earth, they are right here at your fingertips!
Load image overlay to show Kayford’s terrain before
mountaintop removal coal mining began.

(Download these images by clicking on the pictures below)
KayfordMountain1984 KayfordMountainCurrent
(image overlay)
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Over 100 gathered to pray for an end to devastation from mountaintop removal mining

CABIN CREEK, W.VA. — Over 100 people of all ages and faiths gathered on Kayford Mountain Saturday (Oct. 20) at a prayer vigil for the mountains and people of Appalachia affected by mountaintop removal mining. Religious leaders representing a range of denominations and backgrounds led prayers and hymns honoring the state’s mountains and asking for the healing of people harmed by surface mining.

The vigil, hosted by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, a West Virginia group fighting mountaintop removal, brought together families, college students and faith-based groups from across the state and region with attendees from as far as Michigan and South Carolina. The gathering came on the heels of last week’s Council of Churches statement condemning mountaintop removal as “unprecedented and permanent.”

Rev. Robin Blakeman addresses the diverse crowd at the vigil

“We organized this event to help connect religious communities in the region and hope it will compel people of faith to tell the story of what mountaintop removal is doing to our people,” said Rev. Robin Blakeman, a Presbyterian minister and OVEC volunteer who organized the event.

Throughout the vigil, people directly impacted by this extreme form of mining shared their experiences, including Pauline Canterberry of Sylvester, one of the famed “Sylvester DustBusters.” She explained how coal dust covers the inside of Sylvester residents’ homes, clogging indoor air filters and in some cases causing black lung disease in people who have never entered a mine.

Brenda McCoy of Mingo County held up jars of dark red and black water from people’s homes in her community and explained how their water was poisoned by the underground injection of coal sludge, a waste product from coal preparation plants. People in Mingo County just recently won access to city water from the state after their water was declared toxic. Other communities with similar water issues are also facing unusually high levels of cancer and organ trouble, according to OVEC.

“I think we are looking for a transformation of the heart, to care and weep for God’s creation, and become instruments of healing for the earth and justice for people,” said Allen Johnson, coordinator of Christians for the Mountains, an organization working to rally Christians for solutions to mountaintop removal.

Crowd at prayer vigil mingles at the end of the event

After prayers led by Presbyterian, Unitarian, Episcopal and United Methodist pastors, and testimonies from directly impacted residents from all over southern West Virginia, the group walked to a spot on Kayford Mountain from which they could overlook part of the 12,000 acres of mountaintop removal operations that are consuming the mountain.

“I was blown away that something like this could happen in the United States. It looked like a scar on the land, like a huge bomb had been dropped in the mountains,” said Briana McElfish, a Marshall University student from Putnam County. “We have to look for different ways to get energy. Our country’s coal dependence affects us the most, so we, more than anyone else, should be looking at alternatives. We should be leading the way in renewable energy and efficient technologies, creating jobs and protecting our people.”

“So many children and families are harmed by mountaintop removal in this state. I hope the faith community gets more organized and aware and acts from a deep theological place making this one of the primary moral and ethical concerns for people of faith in our area,” said Blakeman.

In mountaintop removal, coal companies raze forests, then use explosives and giant machines to scalp hundreds of feet off the tops of mountains, in order to get to thin seams of coal. Central Appalachia’s forests are some of the most biologically diverse temperate forests on earth, and studies show mountaintops-removal-mined forests may not recover for centuries.

Hundreds of millions of tons of rubble from the blasted mountaintops is pushed into nearby valleys, burying streams and creating valley fills. In West Virginia, over 1,200 miles of biologically crucial headwaters streams have already been buried or impacted by valley fills.

Concerned citizens say mountaintop removal not only destroys water and forests, but that it also erodes mountain culture. Some people are driven away, and those who do stay see their property devalued and their water wells ruined. The noise and silica-laden dust from blasting at the mine sites adversely impacts people’s health. Studies have shown that valley fills mountaintop removal exacerbates flooding during storm events.

Photos by Liz Veazey. See more photos here

Organizing Cabin Creek: A conversation about power, grit and why we’re gonna win

On April 18, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition board member Larry Gibson and OVEC organizer Abe Mwaura met with Lois Armstrong, a longtime resident of Cabin Creek. Lois, along with others in the community of Coalville, organized to stop the construction of a coal loading dock, which would have been illegally close to folks’ homes in the area.

The following is part of the rich conversation that took place when Larry and Lois met. It begins abruptly when Abe realized that he should probably be recording the conversation – with their permission, of course:

Larry: It’s got to be a human rights story, linked to mountaintop removal.

Blasting rig on Kayford Mountain - Photo by Giles Ashford

Lois: But you don’t have any rights.

Larry: That’s it. That’s the whole point…

Lois: We don’t have any rights.

Larry: And you and I both remember the time… if somebody in our area worked for a non-union outfit, they wouldn’t tell anybody back then. Now, if a man works for a union, he doesn’t tell anybody.

Lois: He’s afraid of being ostracized too.

Larry: Sure. I don’t have the wisdom of time like you have. So I’m looking to you to kind of guide me and my friend here. What we’re trying to do is really trying to save some lives. We’re not trying to punish the workers. If they had the choice, they wouldn’t be destroying their own back yard…

I can’t back up from this. When I was a kid people used to tell me I was crazy. But I still gotta stay with this. This is not a jobs issue. This is not simply an energy issue. It’s a human rights issue. You know that it is. Until we can strike a nerve in people, whatever the discomfort is in their lives at this point will still be there in the future.

Lois and Larry marched with a group to a family cemetery on Kayford Mountain. Abe: How do we do that?

Lois: I don’t know.

Abe: How did they do it in the past?

Lois: [pause] I don’t think people used to be as intimidated as they are now.

Larry: No they weren’t.

Abe: Hmm. What’s changed?

Lois: [very deliberately] The feeling of powerlessness.

Abe: You think it’s more now than it used to be?

Lois: Oh yes.

Abe: Well what’s caused that? Why now, and compared to when? Ten years ago, 20 years ago?

Lois: Compared to when I was a kid. Yes. My grandfather was a very strong man. Very quiet – but very powerful. He didn’t shout or make a big noise. What he did, he did very quietly. And he would talk to different people there in Chelyan, when people would come in and try to change things. And he would do it one on one – you know go in and talk to the old-timers. But, I think people now feel hopeless. They feel overwhelmed with the power that others have – that they don’t feel they have.

Abe: And now I’m trying to figure out what is it that caused that. What changed in that amount of time that made them feel so powerless, so that we can figure out what it would take to make them feel powerful again. And it’s not just feel… really, we all have some sense of power – sometimes we just don’t use it. What is it that changed? They’ve lost their power – but why?

Larry: Could it be that the fact that the different leaders of not only the government, but even the union itself…

Lois: Even the courts…

Larry: …even the courts have caved in to the industries. That’s my opinion. That they have caved in to the industries. The people that you and I count on to oversee our rights are the ones who’ve given up our rights – as far as fighting for us.

Lois: But not only on the local level, but the state level, the national level – the whole thing.

Larry: Right. But it starts here. We have more power than we realize because we all have a voice – if we can get it together, and start getting people back together again, and start focusing on what they’ve lost. If we can do that, we can encourage them to take another look at themselves. Otherwise, like I said the miseries that they have now will only get worse.

Abe: And your father did that one on one?Despite the intimidating size and scope of MTR communities are organizing.

Lois: My grandfather. Ya. Chelyan is still unincorporated, and it was those old timers who decided that they did not want to be incorporated. He was one of those old timers and he would say “if you give them a little bit of power they’ll take it all. As long as you don’t give them any power, they can’t take it.”

Larry: Hmm. Well that’s the whole point. That’s what we’re saying. It’s time, with whatever power we’ve got left… we have to organize and direct it in a positive direction instead of letting it sit dormant. We can have all the power we’ve got now, and if its not being used, then what’s the use of having it… We used to have some choice in the direction we were going in, and now they’ve taken that away.

When I went to New York last week I called for the rebirth of resistance, and I never thought I’d hear such a roar of people saying “Yeah, we need the rebirth of resistance.” Well yeah, we need a rebirth of resistance here to get back what the people have lost!

Abe: What does that mean? What does it look like?

Larry: Well right now there is not enough resistance. You know that…

We are natural organizers. We live in the area called the coalfields – where the union was strong. If we hadn’t organized in the beginning we would never have had anything.

We can’t back up… We gotta get that grit back. That’s what we’ve got to find in people today. They’ve got it; they’ve just forgotten that they have it.

To support and learn more about communities organizing in Cabin Creek and around Kayford Mountain go to

Appalachia Is Paying Price for White House Rule Change

BECKLEY, W.Va. — The coal industry chafes at the name — “mountaintop removal” — but it aptly describes the novel mining method that became popular in this part of Appalachia in the late 1980s. Miners target a green peak, scrape it bare of trees and topsoil, and then blast away layer after layer of rock until the mountaintop is gone.

In just over a decade, coal miners used the technique to flatten hundreds of peaks across a region spanning West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. Thousands of tons of rocky debris were dumped into valleys, permanently burying more than 700 miles of mountain streams. By 1999, concerns over the damage to waterways triggered a backlash of lawsuits and court rulings that slowed the industry’s growth to a trickle.

Today, mountaintop removal is booming again, and the practice of dumping mining debris into streambeds is explicitly protected, thanks to a small wording change to federal environmental regulations. U.S. officials simply reclassified the debris from objectionable “waste” to legally acceptable “fill.”

…to read the entire article

Courtesy of Washington Post

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2004; Page A01

Seng Creek, near Kayford Mountain

Penny Loeb is a distinguished author and the web designer for , who has generously allowed her articles to be reprinted here.

The waters rose fast along Seng Creek that morning of Sunday, July 8, 2001. The rain began around 6 a.m. and continued for three or four hours. When it stopped, the creek was still clear. Then all of a sudden it rose like a fire hose had been turned on. To those watching it seemed like a waterfall on flat land. Within what seemed like minutes, the water had curled over the edge of the creek and was spreading out like fingers opening wide.

Patty Crichfield was still in bed when the water reached her house, about a mile down the hollow. Her husband saw the water coming, but didn’t want to wake her. After all, the main floor of the house is four feet above the ground–and the house did withstand the flood of 1916. All of a sudden, the water burst under the front door like an uninvited guest. “It came so fast,” she said. “We had no time to think.” She had laid her Sunday School clothes out the night before. Quickly, she pulled on her pants over her nightgown, and they rushed out the back door and followed a raised bank until they reached safety at a nearby cement building. There they stayed for nearly four hours until the rain stopped and the waters began to recede.

Food waters at Seng CreekEverything inside within a foot of the floor was soaked. Patty had to tear out the living room carpet. The little room off the kitchen has a floor covered in mud. Clothes and furniture were damaged beyond repair. Even the bottoms of the curtains that she had hand embroidered are covered in mud. She was proud of her flower garden in front of the house. Her family had just bought her a little wndmill that she had wanted for some time. The flood waters took it away. Four days after the flood, much of the three-mile long Seng Creek community was still covered in mud. The Crichfields would rather stay somewhere else. But, like their neighbors, they are afraid of the looters. So they slept on mattresses on the floor, protecting what was left. Patty hopes FEMA will condemn her house. They have $70,000 invested in it; she doubts she could get more than $500 now. Just where they would move, she doesn’t know. “He lived here 65 years,” she said of her husband. “I don’t think he would be happy anwhere else.”

The Crichfields were actually somewhat lucky; they still had some of their belongings and family treasures. Clifford Skeens lost absolutely everything he owned, even his clothes. He and his wife were outside when they heard something pop; then the flood came. The angry mess of mud swept into his house, lathering everything in its path. Skeens didn’t live in a flood plain, so he didn’t have flood insurance. It was too expensive. Homeowners’ insurance doesn’t cover his home or his belongings. (more…)

Kayford Mountain

Bulletholes in one of the Stanley's gravestones.  Photo by Lucas BrownThese entries are based on research or interviews conducted by Appalachian Voices staff and volunteers- we’d love for you to add another story or eulogy, and let us know if you’d like to request a change.

Kayford Mountain and its surrounding areas have been the home of Larry Gibson’s family since the 1700’s. More than three hundred of his relatives are buried in the family cemetery there, and when he grew up on Kayford’s beautiful slopes, the mountains rose in every direction from his house. He treasures some of the best memories of his life from those days. He recalls that “it wasn’t the fast life then, it was the good life.”

In 1986, the mountaintop removal started. Over the next 20 years, “the slow motion destruction of Kayford Mountain has been continuous – 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” Arch Coal Inc., Horizon Natural Resources and Massey Energy have flattened the mountains surrounding Larry’s house into a 12,000 acre “pancake.” The mine comes to within 200 feet of the family cemetery, and the blasts make the ground shake. Stray rocks from the explosions land near the gravestones and scar the ground. As one visitor noted, “gone is the peace and stillness that the old cemetery once harbored. For Gibson and other family members, mountaintop mining is practically raising the dead, while burying the living.”

Razing Appalachia

Taken courtesy of Mother Jones

News: First they dug out the land. Then they strip mined it. Now Big Coal is leveling the mountains themselves–and tearing communities apart.

By Maryanne Vollers

July/August 1999 Issue

Hobet Shovel crossing, photo by Rhonda Harper“Hear that quiet?” Larry Gibson asks as he climbs through the highland cemetery where nearly 300 of his kin lie buried. “You know they’re about to set off a shot when they shut down the machines.” Gibson, a 53-year-old retired maintenance worker and evangelist of the environmental cause, hunkers down with some visitors to wait for the blast.

Gibson knows the routine by heart. After all, the Princess Beverly Coal Company has been blowing up the hills around his family’s 50-acre “homeplace” in West Virginia for more than a decade. When the demolition team is ready down below, the “Ukes” — heavy shovel trucks — back away from a line of high explosives drilled into solid rock. Then the warning horn sounds: two minutes.

The graveyard sits atop Kayford Mountain, a modest, leafy peak that sticks out of the shattered landscape like a fat, green thumb. The view from the edge of the cemetery looks more like the Tunisian outback than a West Virginia mountain range: The ground drops 300 or 400 feet into a dust bowl of raw coal and rubble, crosscut by dirt tracks. In the distance, what used to be forested ridges now resemble flat-topped buttes crusted over with rough grass and a few stunted trees.

West Virginia has been mined since the mid-18th century, but nobody has seen annihilation like this before. In the past 20 years, environmentalists claim, 500 square miles of the state have been stripped and gutted for their coal. In the most apocalyptic form of strip mining, called mountaintop removal, whole peaks are razed to extract layers of relatively clean-burning low-sulfur coal, while the excess rock and earth “overburden” is dumped into the valleys. Hundreds of miles of streams have been buried under these “valley fills,” and dozens of mountains have been flattened into synthetic prairies.

Now, an environmental group called the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and seven coalfield residents are taking state and federal regulators to court for the first time, claiming not only that mountaintop removal devastates the environment, but that existing laws designed to mitigate the damage are not being enforced. Coal companies and their proxies defend the practice as necessary for the economy, and assert that there is no proof it permanently damages the environment. Since last year, both sides have been presenting their cases in a federal court. What’s at stake is the future of surface coal mining in West Virginia, the economies of several counties, the way of life of thousands of people, and, environmentalists contend, the ecological health of the northern Appalachian watershed.

Kayford Mountain, photo courtesy of Vivian StockmanWhatever the outcome of the lawsuit, most of Kayford Mountain is destined to be strip-mined one way or another. But Larry Gibson won’t let the coal companies take it all. He represents the large extended clan that owns that 50-acre parcel atop Kayford, the remnant of a mountaintop farm dating back to the 18th century. It’s one of the rare private holdings in West Virginia’s southern highlands, where most land is owned by corporations and leased to coal companies. Millions of dollars in coal lie beneath the picnic ground and vacation cabins, but the family trust won’t sell.

“The man from the coal company told me, ‘We haven’t seen anything we can’t buy,'” Gibson recalls. “I said, ‘You’re not buying this land.’ If we sell, we sell our heritage. We have no past after that. Where can we show our family where their roots are?”

As we watch, a huge explosion wallops a coal-streaked bench below the cemetery, flinging up plumes of yellow dust and sending cascades of dirt and shale overburden into the valley. The hillside shudders with the shock wave. “That warn’t nothing,” observes Gibson’s cousin, Carl “Red” Fraker, a 70-year-old retired miner who lives in a half-deserted village along Cabin Creek, below Kayford. “The big ones roll the ground like an earthquake.” Fraker was born on Kayford Mountain, and he intends to be buried here some day. (more…)

VIDEO: Aerial Flyover of Kayford Mountain

Courtesy of upcoming documentary: Coal Fired

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