This entry was written by Hannah Parker, a senior at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, IA, and a participant on the Windsor Heights Lutheran Church 2010 Mission Trip.
Coal mining is one of the oldest industries in America. Does that mean it is okay to take away people’s homes and take away their rights as Americans?
Today we woke up early to drive an hour to Kayford Mountain. It was a gravel road the whole way up. As we drove up the rocky, shaky road we were surrounded by beautiful scenery the entire time. We were following a man in a truck that had bumper stickers covering the entire back window. Larry Gibson is an activist for all the people whose lives have been destroyed or affected by Mountaintop Removal. We had been told previously in the week that this was a man that had more experience than anyone with the people who support the coal industry. When we arrived a small man in jean overalls and a plaid shirt got out of the car. Little did we know that, although he was small, he is a man with bigger passion and determination than I could have ever imagined.
I didn’t know much of anything that was going on in West Virginia before this point. Most people know that coal mining is a heavily used industry in the Appalachian Mountains but I never knew that there were problems to this extreme. Larry kept describing it as a war. West Virginia’s own war against the mining industry. It is a war. A war for the right to land, clean air and clean water.
We arrived at the top of a beautiful mountains surrounded by trees and greenery. He owns a house at the top of the mountain. In my mind I was not prepared for what we were about to be told. He sat us down at a picnic table near by and started to tell his story. He came from a family with a long tradition of coal mining but he knew from a young age that he would never do it. He grew up wondering how people could destroy the land around him. He told us stories of how people drive up the mountain to send him threats. A threat as extreme as drive by shootings and other harmful acts. Larry Gibson is known all over the world for telling his story to people. He tells stories of how the blasts send debris into his yard and cause kitchen cabinets to rattle and paintings to fall off the walls. He lives in a constant worry of what will happen next but these threats haven’t stopped his fight.
Larry takes us on a tour of the land. We start walking down the road and his shows us piles of coal that remain on the land. The coal companies have given several offers for his land but as he described to us, his land is something that can’t have a price be put on it. As we continue to walk we see other homes along the way. They are old and fairly dilapidated homes but no matter the shape they are in, they are someone’s homes. We walk up a fairly steep hill and come to a wall of greenery. There are signs posted all over saying, “no trespassing” and “private property.” We continue to climb this wall and over the hill we see the destruction of the mountains. We look down at the Mountaintop Removal site and the mountain is no longer a mountain. Larry informs us that the ground we were standing on used to be almost 450 feet taller. It made everything come alive. It was shocking to see how the land has been treated.
As we looked farther we could see towns at the bottom of where all this is taking place. Almost all the people in the towns have some type of illness due to the air and water pollution caused from coal mining. The blasts can go off at any moment. It shocked me to think about having to live in a place with that kind of threat. I can’t imagine living with that kind of fear everyday. Larry Gibson is one of the most courageous people I have ever met. He is fighting for “the people of the mountains” and he puts up with all the threats against him to try to win the fight.
As we leave we drive back down the gravel, bumpy road back into town. We follow a truck that is used to haul the coal to the dumpsite. As we drive by we see the train carts filled with coal. The whole experience was shocking and eye opening to me. Here is a man fighting for something with more passion and determination than anyone I have ever talked to when I barely knew anything about the issue before yesterday. Larry left us with one goal. He wants us to make people more aware of what is going on in West Virginia and in the rest of the Appalachia area so that maybe something can be done to fix it. He doesn’t want his land to be a tourist site. He wants people to go out and spread the news about what is being done and find ways to fix it so that the people living in these communities can rest a little easy and know that the air they breathe in on a daily basis may not cause them to have cancer someday. He is fighting for his rights and the people’s rights around him and he wants us to spread the word to help him in a fight that seems like it may not end until the coal runs out.