Larry Gibson and Mountaintop Removal
Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is a form of surface mining. MTR coal mining is the process in which parts or all of mountain tops are removed to expose seams of coal. The mountain summits are deforested and stripped of topsoil. Explosives and heavy machinery then remove 500 feet or more of elevation from the summit of mountains. The mountain rock material above the coal seam (overburden) is disposed of in adjacent valleys colloquially known as head-of-hollow fills, hollow fills, or valley fills. Large scale equipment is then used to excavate, remove, and process the exposed coal.Mountaintop mining is a continuous process where overburden is removed, seams are mined, and the mountain landscape is regraded. Upon completion, final regrading and revegetation reclaims the mine site to the approximate original contours (AOC) in accordance to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA).
MTR is most prevalent in Central Appalachia, primarily in the states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. Roughly 35% of all coal mining in the U.S. occurs in this region.
Starting in the late 19th century, with the rise of coal mining, land speculation took over in West Virginia. Investors that bought these lands in mass had no intention of inhabiting instead they were purchasing them for financial revenue. Starting in the 1970s, when MTR became prominent, absentee mountain landowners were selling their lands to mining companies.
With mining accounting for 20 to as high as 54.8 percent of employment in 2005, Appalachia residents have a strong connection to mining. Miners often feel underappreciated as they sacrifice their safety for a median household income that is 63% of the national average. West Virginia Residents subsidized coal companies with $42.2 million in 2009.
Residents are divided over MTR mining. Miners contend that the practice reduces energy prices while providing jobs and a safer work environment. Some supporters use religion to defend MTR; they believe that God sent man coal to mine. With mining jobs continually decreasing, residents believe that they'd lose even more jobs if MTR regulations increase. Opponents argue that MTR poisons the landscape and devastates communities for short term gains.
Energy corporations such as Alpha Natural Resources (formerly Massey Coal), Arch Coal, and Patriot Coal Corp. contend that they provide an invaluable service by providing low cost, reliable fuel for homes and businesses in Appalachia. In 1980, mining supported nearly 60,000 jobs in Appalachia and supported some of the energy needs of every state. They contend that they are dedicated to upholding environmental standards and minimizing mining’s impact of the environment.
Coal corporations support MTR because they benefit financially, and discourage regulations of MTR. Corporations have been less liable for work related injuries due to the safer nature of the practice. MTR is cheaper and less labor intensive than underground mining. As a result, corporations' coal production continually increased as their employee base downsized between 1976 and 2004. If regulated, MTR companies' multi-million dollar equipment would be useless.
The Mountain Keepers Foundation protests MTR as an irresponsible mining practice that destroys landscapes, wildlife, and water resources. The foundation aims to educate and inspire people with the hope ending MTR. Greenpeace, a non-governmental environmental organization, believes coal mining is one of the root causes of global warming. They attribute the pollution from coal mining and power plants to four out of five leading causes of death in the United States. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection are neutral towards MTR. They aim to preserve West Virginia's environmental needs and ensure MTR companies are in correspondence to the SMRCA.
Starting in the 1970s, the Federal Energy Administration (FEA) pushed for the increase in coal production. The FEA, formed in response to the 1973 oil crisis, felt pressured to meet the increasing energy demands of the nation. Subsequently, they made conditions favorable for outside coal corporations to do business in Central Appalachia by providing major tax cuts for them. They valued the economic benefits, specifically the job market expansion and energy production, more than the environmental costs . The George W. Bush administration is credited as the biggest endorser of coal production since then.
The mortality rate is higher in the mining counties of Appalachia compared to other U.S. counties. And, the mortality rate is higher in MTR mining counties compared to other mining counties. The Appalachian mining counties averaged 11.5 deaths per 1000 people, while surrounding counties and the rest of the U.S. averaged 10 and 8.3 deaths per 1000 people respectively from the years 2000-2015. Higher rates of cancer, and higher instances of heart and kidney disease have been documented in MTR mining counties. The Appalachia's mining counties averaged over 220 cancer deaths per 100,000 people annually compared to the national average of 165 deaths per 100,000 people from the years 1997-2007.
Mountaintop removal mining has removed more than 500 mountains from the Appalachians, the equivalent of 1.4 million acres of forest habitat. Once the top layer of rock and soil is removed, the earth exposed is incapable of supporting the native hardwood forest making the land not fully reclaimable by the environment when a mine becomes inactive, permanently removing the forest habitat. The Appalachians are home to one of the largest biodiversity hotspots in the United States, exacerbating the impact of environmental removal.
Valley filling has buried more than 2000 miles of streams that form the headwaters for other streams and rivers. The exposed rock from inside the mountains leak heavy metals into the waterways such as lead, arsenic, mercury, selenium, and sulfates. These metals are attributed with negative effects on aquatic and terrestrial life that drink from them. Between 1999 to 2011, two thirds of the fish population downstream of valley fills were eradicated.
Larry "Mountain Man" Gibson
Larry Gibson was born in the Kayford mountains, an Appalachian Mountain, in 1946. Gibson's father, grandfather, other relatives were coal miners. His family owned a piece of land in Kayford where ancestors from the 19th century were buried. He states that he had a struggling childhood and mountains were his remedy. Gibson decided to retire in Kayford. Gibson was appalled at the destruction of his beloved mountains when MTR entered Kayford in the early 1980's . He personally did not oppose mining; he simply opposed what MTR was doing to his beloved mountains. He often said, "love 'em or hate 'em. Just don't destroy them." He rose to be a prominent figure in the fight against MTR.
Larry Gibson's battle versus MTR
Gibson refused to sell his family land that sat on top of an estimated 37-38 seams of coal. It was valued at 650 million dollars before his death at 2012. He later setup a trust to preserve his land. Gibson welcomed reporters, tourists, and visitors to his residence to showcase what MTR has done to mountains around him. Gibson took different measures to protest MTR. He spoke in universities and environment advocacy meetings. He testified in front of the United Nations. He led rallies against MTR and often showed up at shareholders' meetings in banks to protest their investments in MTR companies. He organized an anti-MTR 500 mile walk across Apalachia. During the walk he would speak with miners and residents about the health and environmental repercussions of MTR. Gibson founded the Mountain Keepers foundation in 2004.
Mining companies despised Gibson. They actively intimidated him in hopes of abandoning his property. They sent him death threats, shot and killed his dog, burned effigies of him, tried to run his truck off the road, and incited his arrest in rallies. Gibson claims that they forcibly mined part of his property’s cemetery. Larry Gibson has claimed that most of the Appalachian residents and even some of his relatives disapproved of his activism.
Recognition and Legacy
Larry Gibson is credited as one of the figures that helped strengthen the regulations against MTR. "He's the one most responsible for getting ingrained in people's minds what mountaintop removal is all about. He's like the Ghandi for this movement," said Rob Perks, an anti-MTR activist. He was recognized as an environmental hero by CNN in 2007.
MTR mining today requires a permit. In 2013 Tennessee banned coal mining above 2000 feet in elevation. While Tennessee has not passed legislation banning the use of the mountaintop removal mining method there has not been any active mountaintop removal permits in the past decade. Under the EPA’s Clean Water Rule, to conduct a valley fill an additional permit is required. Mountaintop removal coal mining has decreased by 62% between the period of 2008 and 2014.
Along with increased regulations, declining prices of natural gas have helped decrease the use of coal for power generation. The Mercury and Air Toxins Standard (MATS) regulation introduced in April, 2015 led to the retirement of 16.5 GW of coal burning power production. The new regulation contributed largely to the 22 percent in coal power production between 2013 and 2015 of 28 GW. The remaining coal-fueled power plants produce 90 percent fewer emissions that plants in the 1970s.
The removal of coal in the area saw a large decline in productivity over the period from 2005 to 2015 as the use of natural gas for power production increased and regulations on coal burning power production increased. Overall coal production in Appalachia fell 45 percent from 2005 to 2015, more than double the national decline in coal production of 21 percent. The coal producing regions of West Virginia and Kentucky saw a rise in unemployment over this period of higher than the national rate. Appalachia saw a large decline in the prime working age population over the period of 2005 to 2015 as many left the region in search of work elsewhere. The decline of coal has contributed to the substantial rise in poverty in the region. Mountaintop removal mining fell the most of any type of mining method in Appalachia falling 62 percent from 2008 to 2014.
Appalachia succumbed to careerism and negligence in the case of mountaintop removal. Energy Corporations overlooked the damages of their practice for financial profits. Local governments felt pressured to meet national energy demands. Located several thousand feet above ground, MTR mining remained hidden to the general population until Larry Gibson exposed its existence. Unenticed by financial gain, Gibson's care for nature sustained his fight against MTR for more than 30 years. In the face of backlash, he stood by his moral convictions and brought tangible change to Appalachia.
- http://ien.arch.virginia.edu/publications/mountaintop-mining-appalachia-understanding-stakeholders-and-change-environmental "Mountaintop Mining in Appalachia: Understanding Stakeholders and Change in Environmental Conflict"
- <ref name="NMA">"Press Release and Industry News" National Mining Association
- Eric Bowen, Christiadi, John Deskins, and Brian Lego "An Overview of the Coal Economy in Appalachia" Appalachian Regional Commission, January, 2018
- http://archive.news.indiana.edu/releases/iu/2015/05/coal-mining-testimony.shtml "IU Bloomington researcher testifies about health risk of mountaintop mining"] ''Indiana University Bloomington'', May 14, 2015