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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Larry Gibson: The Keeper of the Mountains

     Ohio Citizen Action is a group of people out there doing it. They are literally bringing the environmental justice issues to doors of the people who are being affected. Lately, they've spent a lot of time on the Rumpke landfill expansion. This summer, they turn to the nastiest of all dirty energies: coal from mountain top removal. (Looking for a green job in Ohio this summer?)

     I had a great weekend in Chicago a few weeks ago with leaders from across the midwest who were getting trained to be coaches and facilitators at Power Shift 2011. Among them was Nathan Rutz, a very well spoken and kind person from OCA. I had met him just a few weeks before on a night out with Danny Berchenko (who else, right?). Near the end of the conference, Nathan mentioned that OCA was going to see Kayford Mountain, the legendary MTR site where Larry Gibson, Keeper of the Mountains, lived. Seeing Kayford seemed like a "right of passage" for every person who organizes to stop coal. I hesitated and I squirmed, because I know it's not pretty.

     Bright and early the next Saturday, I met OCA at their Cincinnati office. I had a collection of writings and speeches compiled into Sierra Club's book "Coal Country" (thanks Lyndsay Moseley) which is a companion book to the movie with the same title. Along the ride, I read clips from Larry Gibson, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Ashley Judd; just to name a few. There is no doubt that the coal business is destroying lives, reducing jobs, and wrecking appalachia to the extent that it may someday soon be virtually uninhabitable. This book couldn't prepare me for what I was about to see.

Organizers from Ohio Citizens Action stand with Larry Gibson (center) with the Kayford Mountain MTR site in the background

A scene of mass destruction. This used to be a mountain top.

    No pictures, books, or even this NatGeo article against MTR can prepare you for what this experience is really like. Larry has a hell of a story to tell, too. He's given thousands of tours of Kayford, and the coal companies have noticed. In fact, they've started piling up the fill near Larry's viewpoint so that it is harder for visitors to see the mass destruction. The problem is, the destruction is too big to hide.

    Much worse than piling up gravel next to his viewpoint, Larry has had to deal with mafia-like attacks at his own home. Besides blowing up the mountains all around him at all hours of the night, making his water undrinkable, digging up his family's cemetary, and making the local air virtually unbreathable with nitroxides and fine particulate matter (you can literally see the haze from it); Larry has had his life threatened, his own dog shot, another hung from his own porch, his cabin burned, gotten beat up- all in all over 120 acts of  violence. This is truly a man making a stand.

A very positive Larry and me. Just before this picture, I had told them that I was starting a campaign to get coal off of my campus. He told me to "keep it positive". In a speech Larry once said "You gotta tell people something positive, but you can't make it easy and tell them that nothing's gonna happen to them because there's always the potential." 
      Once, the coal companies had tried to buy Larry's land. An excerpt from Coal Country:

"The land'll never be for sale. You can have my right arm, but you'll never get the land."

So he said, "Well, you know, you're the island, and we are the ocean. You set in the middle of 187,000 acres of coal company land. You're the only thing we don't own between here and the Virginia border." I had my family members—seven of us —there for that meeting and it just didn't make no sense.

That man said, "We don't give a damn about the people up the holler. We don't care about anybody, anything. All we want is the coal and that's it."
     We made one more stop after Kayford. Coal slurry impoundments are the most foul and toxic waste sites you'll ever see. There are about 7,000 of them, all of which are millions and millions of gallons. One in particular has gotten a lot of attention because it is literally next to Marsh Fork Elementary School.

Photo courtesy of
     When you're looking at this from a van from that tiny road winding through the above pic and its raining buckets, it's even bigger and more terrifying.

     Thanks to OCA for the unforgettable experience. This will be a source of strength in fighting coal that I will always draw from.

     Junior Walk, from Coal River Mountain Watch, was at Kayford Mountain that day, too. He recently spoke at Power Shift about MTR and how it is destroying his community. Blair Mountain, iconic and historic site of the Coal Miners Union's struggle against the unfair practices of the coal companies during the Battle of Blair Mountain, is slated for MTR. Join Larry, Junior, and the people of Appalachia opposed to MTR during the week of June 5-11 for the March on Blair Mountain, and help them make history.


  1. Thanks for posting this and, more importantly, thanks for coming with us to Kayford! Larry is an inspiration to us all.

  2. No problem Alee :) Thanks to you and OCA, and all of the great work they do