Decades-long fight to save family’s land from mountaintop mining drew the praise of politicians and activists alike
Larry Gibson, who turned a lonely vigil to save a remote West Virginia mountain from coal mining into a national environmental cause, has died.
Gibson suffered a heart attack on Kayford mountain, land that had been in his family for generations and that he turned into a prime exhibit of the highly destructive practice of mountaintop removal. He was 66, an email from his Keepers of the Mountain Foundation said.
In his decades-long struggle, Gibson brought national attention to mountaintop removal – described by activists as strip mining on steroids for the epic destruction it visits on mountains and streams.
A diminutive man, who was not a great orator or well connected, Gibson’s courage and persistence won a roster of celebrities for his cause. Robert Kennedy Jr was a supporter, as were actor Daryl Hannah and climatologist James Hansen, both of whom were arrested at mining protests.
“It was Larry who first made me realize the breadth of the injustices associated with coal – and led to my first arrest,” Hansen said Monday.
He added that it was with “some trepidation” that he first rode up to Kayford Mountain in Gibson’s pickup truck to a “cabin with some bullet holes in the front”.
“There is a photo on my desk of the two of us later walking together in a coal protest in Washington, DC. Suddenly that photo means a lot more to me,” Hansen said.
Matt Wasson, a campaigner for Appalachian Voices who had worked with Gibson for 11 years, described him as a “one of the real environmental heroes”.
“He really devoted his life to protecting the mountains he lived in. It’s a huge loss.”
Mountaintop removal was largely unheard-of and unseen when Gibson moved back home to West Virginia in the 1980s, after being forced into early retirement from a job at General Motors in Ohio.
Mining companies were just beginning to buy up locals’ small plots – like the 60 acres Gibson and his cousins jointly owned on Kayford Mountain – to dynamite the peaks and dig for coal.
Thirty years later, 500 mountains across West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky have been stripped of trees and flattened, reduced to dry flat plateau. Some 1,200 mountain streams have been buried beneath rock and debris, according to campaigners.
But Gibson stubbornly refused to sell out – despite being offered millions by the mining companies. He built a two-room cabin on the mountain, living there on and off without plumbing and electricity while his wife stayed in town. He persuaded his cousins to put up rough-hewn shacks too.
He began using the area to offer a rare up-close view of mountaintop mining, bringing up reporters, celebrities, activists and local people to watch giant earth moving equipment gouge out the earth of adjacent peaks.
Campaigners estimate tens of thousands of visitors stopped by Gibson’s land over the years.
He alternated between statistics about mining’s destructive force, and folky charm. “My family was here before coal even got here,” he told me when I visited three years ago.
Gibson’s very public opposition took courage in an area dominated by coal mining. He himself was the son and grandson of coal miners; many of his relatives had worked in the mines.
But that did not stop him. “I tell you what I’m not collateral damage. I am not a victim,” he said during our meeting. “I am somebody. I am just as good as anyone. I deserve the same quality of air and health that everyone does that lives away from the coal fields.”
His public stand brought him isolation – and worse.
Gibson, who was barely 5ft tall, had stories of attempts to intimidate him – showing off bullet holes in the wood of his cabin.
He was careful to monitor the CB radio in his truck for movement of the security firms working for mining companies. But he didn’t back down.
Over the last few years, however, his often lonely struggle began to gain broader attention, and Gibson gained a large personal following. In his blinding lime green t-shirts, he became a regular figure at hearings on mountaintop removal at the West Virginia state capitol and at protests in the area.
The campaign to end mountaintop removal has been elevated to a national concern. The White House also moved to crackdown on mountaintop removal, after years of inaction. Early last year, the environmental protection agency put out new rules for protecting mountain streams that would have limited mining companies.
Those rules are now being challenged in the courts.