Razing Appalachia

As King Coal blasts the tops off the mountains, miners fight to keep their towns on the map

| November/December 1999

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, known as 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 also that existing laws designed to mitigate the damage are not being enforced. Coal companies and their proxies say the practice is necessary for the economy and assert that there is no proof that it permanently damages the environment. Since last year, both sides have been presenting their cases in a federal court. At stake are 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 entire northern Appalachian watershed.

Whatever 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 a 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 then leased to coal companies. Millions of dollars worth of coal lie beneath the picnic ground and vacation cabins now located on the spot, but the family trust won't sell.

'The man from the coal company told me, ëWe haven't seen anything we can't buy,' ' Gibson recalls. 'I said, ëYou'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?'

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