Gibson’s water table dropped steadily until 2001, when it disappeared altogether. Today Kayford Mountain has become the iconic face of mountaintop removal mining; Gibson regularly brings groups up to see firsthand what’s at stake.
“It amazes me how they can talk about clean coal technology and have an extraction process like this,” said Chuck Nelson, a friend and miner who spent 30 years running coal carts underground before he spoke up against mountaintop removal’s destruction and lost his job.
He’s distressed by the vast scars mountaintop mining leaves in the rugged hills. “What they’re destroying can never be fixed. What they’re creating is worthless.”
What they’re creating lies up a rutted road, just beyond a rusty, padlocked pipe blocking the path.
Gibson calls it “Hell’s Gate.”
“Over here you have life,” he said before lifting a leg to trespass. “Over there you have death.”
He walks another 100 yards and stops. The point where Gibson stands tops out at 2,400 feet above sea level. The gash below stretches horizon to horizon: Bare rock and earth, where 150-ton dump trucks look like Matchbox toys and big dozers churn the landscape.
That chasm, he says, was once the area’s high point, 3,100 feet high. Now it’s some 800 feet below him.
“The costs to reclaim this is going out to the people of America,” Gibson said.
An hour’s drive to the east, Andrew Jordon stands on the porch of a hunting shack he had built for his employees and that looks out over a scene of similar desolation.
Except instead of Hell he sees heaven.
Jordon runs a small mining company that is chewing away at 400 acres of the same coal-rich terrain Gibson is trying to keep.
Jordon is the ninth generation of his family to live in that valley. The land he’s leasing is owned by the family of a friend and former high school football teammate. His general manager, Rocky Hackworth, is another high school classmate.
“I hunt in these hollows,” Jordon said. “To me, it’s very important to do it right. Where we’re standing today is an area we took down, took the coal out, and put it back to about where it was.”
Jordon has been mining for 20 years, has 6,000 acres under lease and has mined and reclaimed 2,200.
For every ton of coal he ships out of his mine, he has to move 28 tons of overburden, or rock. He figures he’s pulled 1.5 million tons of coal out so far and has another 6 million tons to go.
Every operation he’s started has run into some sort of inherited environmental contamination: a river running at pH 2 – fatal to aquatic critters – that Jordon restored to a more natural pH 6. Or a previously botched restoration that his crew reshaped and reforested with black cherry, sugar maple, oak and white ash.
Such work tends to get dropped from press coverage of mountaintop removal, advocates note. Confronting the same group of journalists that had crossed Hell’s Gate with Gibson, Coal Association President Bill Raney had to vent a bit of steam: “You say that mining’s not protecting the resources,” he said. “It drives me nuts when y’all use that same paragraph. It’s absolutely meaningless in terms of what we do out here.”
Men like Jordon and Hackworth move the earth, mine the coal, reshape the hills and reforest them. Or they leave a patch of level ground for a school, a ballpark, a Wal-Mart – no small asset for a state with preciously few flat spots.