On Thursday evening, Larry Gibson, an activist against mountaintop removal, spoke to College students in Paresky Auditorium about the destruction of the Appalachian Mountains by coal mining. Activist Debbie Graff accompanied him.
Gibson hails from West Virginia and works hard to protect the mountain on which he resides, Kayford Mountain, from mining and industrialists. Gibson has appeared on CNN and ABC’s 20/20. He has also spoken before the United Nations, gaining international recognition for his efforts. Gibson and his colleagues at the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation travel across the nation speaking to community, church and university groups.
“I’ve come to get you mad,” Gibson said to the audience of College students, many of whom were biology majors. “Before I get through, you’re really going to get mad at me for coming.”
To make his point, Gibson showed a video of Elmer Lloyd from Kentucky, whose fishpond was heavily polluted due to toxic elements from mountaintop removal. The pond had to be filled and landscaped over due to safety hazards. Over 430 miles of streams in Kentucky have been covered due to surface mining.
“The biggest contributor to polluted water in my area is industry,” Gibson said. He added that the people living in these regions are those who bear the costs of such heavy pollution.
Graff then took the stage. Although a native of West Virginia, Graff did not grow up in a family involved in the coal mining industry. Graff spoke of a childhood filled with pleasant memories of scaling rocks and exploring nature. Upon reading a book on mountaintop removal and moving to a more rural area, however, Graff said she discovered counties in West Virginia that were “horrible-looking” due to the filling of creeks and the destruction of rocks and mountains.
Graff noted that these counties are generally home to poorer citizens. “It is a class separation,” Graff said. “Politicians feel like they can overlook the children of less economic value to them … The counties that are the poorest have the most coal extracted from them.”
Graff added that her experience with seeking help from local authorities has been negative. “I don’t know what it’s like for people in my state government to care about what I have to say,” she said.
Graff then went on to discuss a stream buffer zone rule set by President Reagan in 1983, which stipulated that anyone conducting any type of land-filling must do so 100 feet away from a stream unless he could prove that the water would not be harmed. Graff said this law was largely unenforced.
In 2008, the Bush administration reversed the ruling, allowing for the covering of primary streams. The Obama administration has since talked about reversing it again. A hearing on the matter recently took place, with two witnesses, Bo Webb and Maria Gonnoe, speaking on behalf of reversing the ruling. However, Graff pointed out that when the Natural Resource Committee issued a press release the following afternoon, it did not include the testimony presented by the aforementioned witnesses.
Gibson then reassumed the stage. “I have nothing against coal miners,” he said. “They are people just like I am.”
He then relayed his experience appearing before the United Nations: “The first time I went, they told me, ‘[The United States is] the most civilized country in the world, the most educated country in the world.’ And I said, ‘Why are we still using coal then?’”
Many human deaths in West Virginia are caused by cancer and black lung, diseases related to mining, Gibson added. Miners are not the only victims to illness, according to Gibson. “Every year we lose 500 people that have never worked in a mine but have related diseases,” he said, referring to women in the region.
Gibson then spoke about the daily fight he faces against mountaintop removal. He said people often break into his cabins, try to burn down the cabins, kill his animals and even shoot him. “I’ve been fighting for 30 years,” Gibson said. “I will not give up my fight.” He said he has to carry around a gun with him while at home, which he finds unbelivable.
“We do not have the right to put somebody else’s life in harm,” Gibson said. He added that coal is often used for profit, not necessity, given the existence of other power sources, and yet many people’s lives are put in danger because of the mining industry.
Gibson then discussed the lobbying presence of the coal industry in Washington. “We keep hearing about this thing called the United States of America,” he said. “We have the best politicians money can buy. All of them take money from coal. Ninety-five percent of our state politicians take money from coal.”
A brief Q&A session followed, and Gibson said the country’s goal should be to have a sustainable environment without the use of coal. “You don’t have to live in coal country to do something,” Graff added.