Ravaged mountains near Larry Gibson’s “homeplace” on Kayford Mountain, West Virginia.© Getty Images (l), Jim Motavalli (r)
From the ground, peering up at their vertigo-inducing heights, the green and wooded mountains of southern West Virginia look ancient and undefiled. But from the air, the stark reality of an ecosystem under siege becomes clear. E recently boarded a flyover sponsored by Southwings, a group of volunteer pilots who work to dramatize environmental challenges in the Southeast. The mountains around Charleston retain their diverse hardwood cover and contours shaped by time immemorial, but things change abruptly 35 miles to the southeast, where the small, single-engined plane swooped low over a moonscape.
Replacing the green mountains are flat, bare and terraced plateaus that evoke the mesas of the Southwest, though with added black stripes from the coal seams. The trucks kicking up dust on this inhospitable terrain appear tiny from the air, but in reality they are monsters with 16-foot tall tires—so big they can’t travel on public roads and must be assembled on the mining site.
From the air, this blasted vista is momentarily interrupted by a flash of green—the 50 acres that has been in Larry Gibson’s family since the 1700s. It is, in local parlance, his “homeplace,” and 300 of his relatives are buried there in a cemetery that is itself slowly being undone by the mining operations all around it. Once mountains loomed 1,000 feet above the hilltop cemetery; now it stands alone, looking down on a blasted world.
Back on the ground, Gibson—the last holdout on Kayford Mountain—welcomes visitors to what’s left of the family homestead, established in 1797. The property, once 500 acres, is shaded by ancient trees and dotted with the cabins and trailers of family members” vacation homes. But it is also blanketed in coal dust and regularly shaken by the huge blasts (the equivalent of 100 Oklahoma City bombings, and using the same explosives) that reduced the neighboring peaks to barren flatlands.
Walk up a well-worn footpath on Gibson’s property and the greensward ends abruptly, with visitors left looking out over mountaintop removal sites covering some 12,000 acres, all of it being torn asunder by such big operators as Arch Coal, Horizon Natural Resources and Massey Energy. Rising next to the mining sites are vast mounds of earth thinly covered by struggling green grass (itself a non-native species imported from Asia). These are the so-called “valley fills,” pulverized mountaintops laced with all manner of toxic materials. Dumped into the hollows between mountains, they bury or add poisonous flavoring to the alpine streams that provide drinking water to local communities. They appear as obscene unnatural bulges on the landscape, with the grass covering described by one activist as “lipstick on a corpse.”
Gibson, who is small but fierce and wears a green fluorescent cap and T-shirt that proclaims his 20-year fight against the coal giants, shows pictures of Kayford in the 1950s, when it had 800 homes, schools, five churches and a movie theater. “The last house burned down in 1993,” Gibson says. “They’ve destroyed a whole culture here; I’m all that’s left. The mining companies told me, “You’re an island and we’re an ocean.” We have 39 seams of coal here, but it’s a land trust now, and there are some things that money won’t buy. MTR [mountaintop removal] has destroyed a million acres through Appalachia and less than two percent of it has been “reclaimed.””
The 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) states that after extraction is complete MTR sites must be returned to their “approximate original contour,” but elevation is apparently not part of the bargain for state environmental departments. The former mountains remain as barren plateaus, and any regeneration will take centuries. Reclamation efforts are scattered and largely pitiful, because the “industry-ready” flat land is left both polluted and inaccessible. A few housing complexes and a prison were built on old mine sites. The industry’s shining reclamation example is a golf course surrounded by active mining sites in Kentucky.