DOROTHY, W. Va. – Larry Gibson lives on an island in the sky.
It didn’t start that way: His land was once a low hill in a rugged hardwood forest – cherry, oak, hickory – skipping from ridge to ridge across one of the poorest, most rural areas of the Lower 48.
Then came the mining companies with their dynamite and trucks. They clear-cut the forest, blew the tops off the ridges and scraped the rocks into the hollows, pushing hundreds of feet of mountains into the valleys below.
They came for the coal – energy that provides half of the nation’s electricity and has been touted as a major plank in the United State’s bid for energy independence. They left, in Gibson’s view, a swale of extirpation and death.
This is mountaintop removal mining, the underbelly of the promise of clean, home-grown energy touted by industry and politicians.
No place in the United States has seen the damage and the benefits of mountaintop removal like Appalachia, where one third of the nation’s coal is mined. Today about 30 percent of all the coal coming out of the central and southern Appalachians comes via such surface mining.
“There is no such thing as clean coal,” Gibson said, talking to a group of journalists under the canopy of his forested knob, where the sylvan sounds of birds and wind carried an undertone of heavy machinery and tumbling rocks.
“I want you folks to write what you see,” he said. “And if you write truthfully, you will end one of the most barbaric practices on the planet.”
Coal’s benefits are considerable: cheap, plentiful energy that simultaneously injects cash into the poorest regions of the country. Coal holds such power that no U.S. administration – Republican or Democrat – has ever tried to stop mountaintop removal.
The full environmental cost is never tallied. No other energy source emits as much carbon dioxide when burned. Coal is so cheap – and so plentiful – that experts generally agree global warming will never be contained until industrialized nations find a way to cap those emissions. And before coal burns, it has to be ripped from the ground.
Gibson’s family has owned this wooded hilltop for 230 years: 50 acres at the end of a rough road, populated with maples, walnuts and a few small houses with tar-paper roofs and kids’ swings out in front.
It’s a peaceful place, where autumn colors a drizzly autumn morning with red and gold and green. “My mother gave me birth,” Gibson often says. “The mountains give me life.”
His grandfather discovered in the late 1940s that 426 acres – acreage now being mined – had been stolen away in 1906, after someone filed what Gibson called a fraudulent title showing three “X”s as the signatures of his illiterate forebears.
In 1986 the Princess Beverly Coal Co. dynamited the top off the first ridge of what Gibson said was once his family’s forest.
Seven years later Massey Coal offered $140,000 for his hill. He turned them down.
“There should be some things in life money can’t buy,” he said.