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Longtime Mountaintop-Removal Coal Mining Opponent Larry Gibson Remembered by Activists and Friends

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Posted Oct. 17, 2012

Interview with Chuck Nelson, president of the Keeper of the Mountain Foundation, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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Over the past few decades, mountaintop removal coal mining has become a scourge throughout southern Appalachia, in many parts of West Virginia and Kentucky as well as Virginia and Tennessee. In this method of coal mining, an extreme step beyond contour surface mining, millions of pounds of dynamite are used to literally blow the tops off mountains to get at the coal seams beneath, sending tons of earth and rocks into fresh water streams and creeks below.

Larry Gibson, who died of a heart attack in September, first raised the alarm 25 years ago against the practice and the resulting destruction of the land, pollution of the air and water, and the devastation of entire communities. He advocated an end to all coal mining and coal burning because of its major contribution to climate change and its terrible health impacts on local communities.

Family members and fellow activists attended a memorial service for Gibson in Charleston, W. Va. on Oct. 14, where he was remembered as a fearless environmentalist, but even more as a humanitarian who assisted anyone who needed help and who came to the defense of those impacted by all types of coal mining – the miners who felt threatened by his work and in turn threatened and harassed him. The day before the memorial service, Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus traveled to a gathering in Gibson's honor at his ancestral home on Kayford Mountain, W. Va., which has been mostly destroyed by mountaintop removal. There, she spoke with Chuck Nelson, a close friend of Gibson's who joined his Keeper of the Mountain Foundation and traveled with him around the country often to talk about their struggle against mountaintop removal coal mining.

CHUCK NELSON: You know, I still can see him when he goes to speak at these meetings and events. He'll be standing there in his yellow T-shirt and yellow hat and wire-rimmed glasses. He's always pointing that little finger. He said, "I come here to make you mad. When I get through you're gonna be mad at me or mad at the issues I'm tellin' you what's happening. Either way it goes, you're gonna leave here mad. But I want you to be mad, and I want you to get out and do something. What people does after they hear him is what impresses Larry. Larry's been around a lot of big-name people, famous people, people with money. They don't impress him at all. It's what they do, what action do they take to try to stop the destruction of Appalachia. Larry, as a child growing up here and seeing his father work in the coal mines and seeing how hard he labored and how he came draggin' in after workin' a shift and being barely able to walk after pullin' a shift's work – Larry seen this at an early age, how the coal industry was abusing their workers, how they took advantage of them. At times, he's seen how people has gotten hurt in the mines. His dad got hurt in the mines and wasn't able to pay the rent because you stayed in a company home. They'd kick you out of the home, they'd evict you from the house.

So Larry lived that; he seen it early in life, and he knew he didn't want to go through the same thing his father did, and what other miners in earlier years was going through. So he left here and went to Cleveland and he worked for the Auto Workers up there and stayed long enough to draw a pension and get his health care, but he always considered this his home – Kayford Mountain was his home. So Larry returned, and as bad as it was when he grew up, when he returned he was just devastated by what the coal companies was doing to the mountains, and his homeland. Even I, as a child, remember coming up here and seeing a school, a church, a big community on top of this mountain. Now it's not the same. That's what Larry witnessed when he come back. A lot of his ancestral land had been sold by family members to the coal companies. At one time, they had over 300-some acres here on Kayford Mountain. So Larry had 50 acres that still remained, so he put it in a trust fund to protect it so the coal-mining companies could never get that. And so, he would walk out and look, you know, the mountains he roamed through, he even had animals as friends, he was that close with the outdoors. This was the land he grew up in; after he seen what was happening, he started speaking out and this was over 25 years ago – talking about mountaintop removal, and how they blow the tops literally off the mountains and drop the over-burden in the valleys, and just destroying community after community. It upset him and so, little did Larry know that when he started standing up over 25 years ago that this would turn into a nationwide movement, where people all across the country now are speaking out against mountaintop removal, and I'm talking about big green groups like Sierra Club, Earth Justice, NRDC and RAN, Rainforest Action Network. He is the father of this movement.

He got this organization – Keeper of the Mountains – that is something he always dreamed about. The purpose of it was – it wasn't about Larry Gibson – it was about seeking out people that had stories to tell and didn't have thet opportunity. So he was going to give 'em that opportunity – put 'em on the road and let 'em go all over the country tellin' people the impacts of MTR in their communities. Larry said, "There's thousands of stories these people can tell; they just don't have the opportunity." He said, "That's what I want my foundation to do." He looked at me and said, "You have to promise me that if something ever does happen to me – because he felt like he would lose his life in this batter; maybe not as a heart attack but with violence that was taken against him all the time." I've heard people say, "Larry, are you scared of the violence that comes your way, the way the coal industry sends the miners after you, shootin' his dog and burnin' his camp down and runnin' him off the road." Are you scared? And he said, "No, I'm not scared; I'm concerned. When you show fear, it's just like a bunch of sharks – they feed off that. So no, I don't have any fear ever." And it really inspired everybody, especially me, to carry on his message and see that his foundation moves forward and do the work that he wanted to do.

Learn more about the communities and organizations fighting to end mountaintop removal coal mining at CRMW.net.

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