Interview with MTR activist Larry Gibson
Shoutin’ from the Mountain: Talking MTR with Larry Gibson
Taylor Lee Kirkland \ 2009
“The coal industry will never understand the connection Appalachian folks have with their land. Most industry people are wealthy people. They’ve never had to do things for themselves—grow a garden, raise cattle, have a smokehouse. There’s a big difference between living on the land and living with the land. When you live with the land you see that it feeds you, provides shelter, and supplies everything you need for life. When you live on the land you see it as something secondary. You don’t experience the effects of its destruction.”
At the end of a gravel road atop Kayford Mountain in Raleigh County, West Virginia lives Larry Gibson, the unofficial ambassador of the movement to stop mountaintop removal mining. From the highway, it is difficult to imagine the devastation that has occurred on Kayford Mountain. But looking out from the edge of his property—land his family has lived on for over 200 years—the landscape has been completely transformed. The lush green mountains have been replaced with gray piles of rubble and small patches of the valuable coal veins that run from here to Kentucky.
Although his land has been valued at $650 million, Gibson refuses to sell or leave his home. This refusal comes at a cost. Coal thugs (he calls them) have shot at him, tried to run him off the road, burned his cabin, and killed his dog. Despite the threats, Gibson keeps working. Over the last twenty years as an activist Gibson has been featured in National Geographic, Vanity Fair, and in the New York Times, and in 2007 was nominated as a CNN Hero.
Gibson welcomes concerned citizens, students, journalists, and government officials to visit his homestead to see first-hand what mountaintop removal does to the land. “There are people that are angry about what is happening here,” he says, “but you can’t just be angry—you gotta be willing to do something.”
Kirkland: You describe what’s left of your land as an “island in the sky,” a landscape that would be completely unrecognizable to your ancestors. Talk a little bit about the history of Kayford and what your ancestors would have experienced here in the past.
Gibson: My people moved to the valley in the late 1700s. They eventually acquired five hundred acres here on Kayford Mountain by wedding dowry in 1886. That same year a geologist and prospector named W.C. Reynolds climbed up Kayford, looked out over the mountains, and found some of finest coal he’d seen in the whole region. He went back to his land company people and told the board members what he saw, and sure enough, they ended up acquiring 60,000 acres of this land.
In 1906 the prospector came back after digging through some records and told my family that my great-great grandparents had marked three X’s on a contract that transferred a big portion of their acreage to the land company. The prospector made up that phony document, there is no doubt about it. You could get anything notarized back then. A coal executive could walk into a notary with a document and the people at the desk would say, “Oh, your from such and such company, no problem.” Company men could walk away with a stamp of approval for just about anything and no one would say a thing about it.
Kirkland: What did your family get out of the “deal”?
Gibson: In repayment for the land my family received one dollar and “considerations.” The company treated them like they were a bunch of ignorant mountain folks that didn’t know any better. They figured they could take advantage of my people because they didn’t have a formal education. But the county didn’t build a school up on Kayford until 1923, and when they finally did, it only stayed open until 1936. Folks like my great-great grandparents never had access to school like a lot of other people. Now, they might not have gone to school, but my people weren’t ignorant.
Kirkland: How much land did they lose?
Gibson: We went from five hundred acres to fifty. All of that with the flip of a pen.
Kirkland: Have land companies tried to pressure you in the same way?
Gibson: I didn’t want anything else to happen to Kayford so in 1992 I put it under a land trust, which protects it from being overrun by the coal companies. But sure, over the years companies have tried everything in their power to work deals with me. As I was organizing the land trust a coal company representative paid me a visit and made me an offer for this land. He told me, “Larry, we’re here to help y’all out. We’ll make a generous offer to you.” He thought he was really doing us a favor! I said to him, “You can have my right arm or my right leg, but you'll never get this land, never.” He didn’t like what I had to say, so he responded, “You know you’re an island and we’re the ocean. You’re sitting in the middle of 187,000 acres of coal company land. You’re the only thing we don't own between here and the Virginia border. It’s only a matter of time…”
This is how coal companies work. First they offer you money, then they try to scare you, then they try to leverage everything they can against you. I wouldn’t back down then, and I won’t back down today. I’ve been told there’s $650 million dollars of coal on these fifty acres we’re standing on. I could be a real rich feller if I wanted, but it doesn’t matter how much money I’m offered, this land is not for sale.
Kirkland: You were born here on Kayford, left for a number of years, and then came back. What caused you to leave and what was Kayford like when you came back?
Gibson: My father was laid off from his deep mining job in the mid 50s so he was forced to look for work elsewhere. We packed our belongings and followed what was called the “Hillbilly Highway,” a road that ran from here north to Cleveland, Ohio. We spent a good number of years in Cleveland, though I never liked it much. I decided to move back to West Virginia in 1986 after a work accident I had at General Motors. When I returned home, coal companies had purchased most of the land, people’s homes had been destroyed, and a lot of families had moved out. The deep mines were closed and there was very little work. It was a real mess.
Around the same time the state came in and started widening the roads and reinforcing the bridges that came into the valley. Those of us living here thought all this work was a little strange. We asked local officials what was going on and they told us the state was here to “improve the local infrastructure.” These building projects were for the “people” and the “community,” they said, but when you looked around, our community didn’t have any people left in it! It didn’t take long to figure what was going on. All of this work was in preparation for the coal industry and their machinery. The state literally paved the way for what we’re dealing with today—they subsidized the destruction of these mountains and communities.
Kirkland: This was about the time you became an activist, correct?
Gibson: That’s right. I never wanted to become an activist, but I had to. If I hadn’t I would have been torn off this mountain a long time ago. There are thousands of people around the world who have heard me speak since I started this work, but honestly I wish to God no one knew my name. I wish I didn’t have to leave my home and talk to people about mountaintop removal. Last year I traveled eight months out of the year talking to people about this stuff. But I know I have to bring this message to the world and I’m gonna fight for justice in every way I can.
We have to have an uprising. This isn’t an uprising that can be bought with money, but one that’s coming from the hearts of honest and hardworking people.
Kirkland: Isn’t this an uprising, in some ways, against your own people?
Gibson: My dad was a coal miner, and just about everyone else in my family worked in the mines. So yes, these are my people—I do believe that. But there is nothing but destruction coming from the coal industry around here and I will not support or be sympathetic with that kind of destruction. I’ve seen it going on for a long time.
Kirkland: As the son of a coal miner, were there expectations that you would become a miner yourself?
Gibson: I knew early in my life I didn’t want to be a miner. I knew it from seeing how they treated my family. As a young boy I used to watch my father sit in a tub in the kitchen crying because he had worked all week and came home with no money. He had some script left over, but no money. West Virginia prohibited companies from issuing script in 1912, but they kept using it until the 60s because no one cared to enforce the law. Government corruption goes back decades here in West Virginia, but it’s worse today because the coal companies are the one’s actually making the rules. They make them so they can break them. If I break the rules, however, it’s a whole different story.
Kirkland: Corporations have the same rights as citizens but don’t have the same responsibilities.
Gibson: Yes sir.
Kirkland: What about breaking the rules? An unjust law is no law at all, right?
Gibson: You’re right, except that I have to deal with the consequences of breaking unjust laws. I have a court date in a few months with Darryl Hannah and Jim Hansen after being arrested at a rally we organized at a Massey preparation plant here in Raleigh County. When I’m asked to take the stand, I’ll have a strong message for everyone who is listening. I’m gonna hold the state of West Virginia, the judiciary system, and the law enforcement agencies in contempt. More than anyone, I’m gonna hold Governor Manchin in contempt. I fully expect to go to jail for doing this. I don’t want to go to jail, but I know I have to. I will be jailed for exercising my freedom of speech, for expressing the idea that destroying mountains is wrong. For that I will lose part of my life in prison.
Larry and I continued talking as we approached the edge of his property. He pointed out interesting features in the landscape, going back and forth from one side of the ridge to the other. He talked about the three towns below and the 150,000 residents who have left because of the mining.
Kirkland: You call this spot were standing “Hell’s Gate.” Describe what were looking at and why you give it that name.
Gibson: I call it “Hell’s Gate” because it’s the separating line between life and death. If you look over at my land and you’ll see beautiful colors and all kinds of living creatures. Look the other way and all you’ll see is crushed up rock. It’s not a place of life or a place where anything could be grown. You’ll starve to death on that side of the ridge. Back on my side you’ll find land where anything you desire can be grown. We have topsoil, healthy root systems, and plenty of food to eat.
Coal companies use explosives and blow up as much as five hundred feet for a single seam of coal. Once they get the seam they were after they push the rest aside into the valleys. With deep mines they could have mined at least five seems of coal here and they could have left the mountain in tact. They don’t collect but ten percent of the coal they were mining for with mountaintop removal. The rest gets lost in the blasting process and ends up becoming valley fill. What we’re looking at here is the inside of a mountain. We’re looking at the belly of a beast.
Kirkland: What would this place have looked like fifty years ago?
Gibson: The whole landscape would have been covered with rolling green mountains. Kayford would have stood at about 3,300 feet—now it stands at 2,200 feet and much lower in some places.
Kirkland: It looks like they’re doing some work over on that ridge.
Gibson: That’s Coal River Mountain, the last mountain in this valley that hasn’t been destroyed. But you can see what’s going on right now—they’re getting the site prepped by clearing all the trees out. Go ahead and pick a spot anywhere on that ridge. The next time you come for a visit it’ll be gone.
Kirkland: What are some of the environmental threats the communities below face being in such close proximity to a mountaintop removal site?
Gibson: Flooding is an issue. If you pour a bucket of water on the ground on my side of the ridge there are plants, roots, and soil to absorb it. Over on this side all that’s left is crushed up rock and dirt so if we get four or five inches of rain in a 24-hour period we’re in a lot of trouble. The rain isn’t gonna wait around for us to get to higher ground—it’ll rush through this holler like a waterfall.
After dropping these mountains a thousand feet, it’s hard to know how the weather is going to interact with the rest of the landscape in the future. We’re changing the basic contour of the landscape, were clogging up rivers and streams, and were changing wind patterns. The coal industry doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing taking down entire mountains and destroying entire ecosystems. The long-term environmental impacts will be felt for hundreds and thousands of years from now. Not even fifty years from now a young person’s gonna be sitting on this ridge thinking, “Why didn’t someone do something about this?”
Kirkland: What about coal sludge and the other wastes associated with processing?
Gibson: If you take the amount of coal produced in the United States every year and multiply it by ninety-five—the gallons of water needed to wash each ton of coal—the amount of coal waste created by these processing facilities is astonishing. We’re talking billions and billions of gallons. The toxic sludge has to be stored somewhere, so for a while they used to inject it into the ground into abandoned mine sites. What were dealing with now is billions of gallons of coal slurry underneath us flowing through cracks and channels between rock layers and into our water supply. Our water used to be sweet and pure. Now it comes out rusty orange and black. It stinks, it corrodes plumbing systems, and it stains peoples clothes. And people are getting sick because of it—people are dying.
Now companies store the sludge above ground in earthen dams. The third largest dam on the planet is not far from here in Brushy Fork where Judy Bonds used to live. It’s the largest dam in the United States and the largest in the western hemisphere. I was arrested a few months ago for asking Massey to stop dynamiting two hundred yards from the dam. Even Massey’s engineers have said that the Brushy Fork dam is gonna break at some point. If it breaks, a forty-foot wall of sludge will affect communities as far seventeen miles away. How many people do you think will live through that kind of disaster? We’ll lose about 1,000 people if it breaks during the day. If it breaks at night, we’ll lose three or four times that many. And nobody seems to care.
For a moment, Larry and I looked out over the horizon in silence. He eyes looked stern and weary, and he came to tears as he looked over the barren landscape. A white pickup truck broke the silence as it came into view below the ridge where we stood. A tall bearded man in a blue uniform stepped out of the truck and started up the hill where we stood.
Gibson: Look there, a security guard. He’s gonna tell me, “Don’t you know you’re on the wrong side of the gate?”
Security Guard: (shouting from below) I don’t know about you Larry!
Gibson: What do you mean you don’t know about me? Don’t walk all the way up here—I’ll save you the walk. We’ll get out of your way.
Security Guard: No, I need the exercise.
Gibson: (to Kirkland) He’s been told to come up here and kick me off the mountain any time he sees me on the ridge.
Security Guard: (approaching) I knowed it was you, Larry.
Gibson: You knew it was me?
Security Guard: Yeah, I seen the dog with the orange collar through the binoculars and I knew it was Larry Gibson there on the hill.
Gibson: Well here I am. They working today? Don’t hear no blasting.
Security Guard: Yeah they workin’. Ain’t doing no blastin’ though. They up over the hill there.
Gibson: You ever figure as a young man you’d ever see this type of mining coming?
Security Guard: You didn’t see none of this where I was raised down in Kingsport.
Gibson: Oh yeah, Kingsport? I was transferred down there with General Motors, contract negotiator. You never worked down there for GM?
Security Guard: I tried to before I started driving a tractor. I always tried to get that job.
Gibson: How long you been guarding here?
Security Guard: Going on nine years.
Gibson: Nine years. How in the hell…well, I guess you gotta eat.
Security Guard: That’s right. The old woman started before I did. She’s around the mine site somewhere, chasing off some kids on 4-wheelers.
Kirkland: Massey contract you guys?
Security Guard: Yeah, from Dunbar.
Gibson: Massey don’t own nothin' here. The only thing they own are their briefcases. They contract the security, the machinery, the land, everything. If they had to leave, all they got to do is close the briefcase.
Kirkland: What happens when Massey’s done here? What happens to your job?
Security Guard: Don’t know, hasn’t happened yet! But work’s always up and down. Awhile ago I was only working two days a week, but then they put me back to seven days a week, twelve hours a day. I told them I couldn’t do that and that I wanted to go back to part time, but here I am still workin’.
Gibson: They bring folks up here and keep ‘em for two or three days at a time and don’t let ‘em go home.
Security Guard: Well, they raisin’ hell with us right now for working sixteen hour days. Anything over twelve you’re gonna hear about it.
Gibson: Well, we’re gonna head around the back side.
Security Guard: Okay. I’m gonna see if I can go get me them 4-wheelers.
Gibson: You know you don’t gotta come up here like this.
Security Guard: You know what they tell me to do Larry. “Keep him off of here, keep him off of here!” What am I supposed to do? I’ve been friends with you for years, me and my wife. Come over to the old campground with Brenda sometime.
Gibson: Okay, tell your lady I asked about her.
Larry and I walked back to his side of the ridge and back to his cabin. We kept warm by the woodstove while his wife made us coffee. The solar powered lights were dim, the perfect amount of light for our conversation around the kitchen table.
Kirkland: The Obama administration has added the development of clean coal technologies to their list of priorities over the next few years. Is this a move in the right direction or is this just politics as usual?
Gibson: There is nothing clean about coal, nothing. With Obama still calling for clean coal, it makes me uncertain who his advisors are. He made a lot of promises about bringing change to Washington. Well, change has come, but so far it’s only been in the form of a check or a corporate bankbook.
Kirkland: You had the opportunity to speak to President Obama last year about mountaintop removal. Can you talk about that experience?
Gibson: Obama visited West Virginia on a campaign trip last April so I figured it would be a good time to ask him about what kind of change he had in mind for West Virginia. I went to Charleston University to see him speak and with the help of some college students I was able to get to the front of the crowd. I wore my green shirt and hat—my Kayford clothes—to make sure he could see me in the crowd. Every time he made a comment people would stand up and cheer, you know how it goes. I made sure I was the last one to sit down after everyone cheered so he would see me. Unfortunately I didn’t get to ask him any questions, but I think he noticed me.
His next speech was scheduled at The Armory in Beckley so I got in my truck and headed that direction. After waiting in line for six hours I finally got in. Obama said a lot of the same stuff about jobs and the economy, and after his speech he recognized six people to ask questions. I was the fifth, whom he referred to as the “man in green.” I introduced myself and commended him for his position on the war in the Middle East, but I wanted to talk to him about a different war that’s going on. I said, “Mr. Obama, let me tell you about a war going on here in Appalachia. In West Virginia alone, 3 million pounds of explosives are used every day. How can you be against a war in the Middle East, but not against one in your own country?” He told me I needed to get in touch with my local regulatory agencies and file a complaint. That was the biggest joke I heard all day, and nobody laughed. Does he have any idea what’s going on in his own country?
Kirkland: You’ve brought the issue of mountaintop removal to your local, state, and now national officials and regulatory agencies. Who else?
Gibson: I’ve spoken twice to a U.S. government delegation at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. I explained to this delegation that we’ve talked to all the proper regulatory agencies, approached the EPA and the DEP, organized local campaigns, gone through all the hoops. They had some knowledge of what was going on in Appalachia and fully understood my concerns, but they basically told me I was in the wrong venue to voice my concerns. Local leaders ignore us, national leaders ignore us, and now international leaders? Who in the hell are we supposed to talk to?
If we’re going to be effective, we have to speak to the whole world about what’s happening in Appalachia. We have to work with other NGOs, other governments, and other cultures and communities around the world. The destruction of Appalachia is not just an Appalachian issue, it’s a global issue. People here are affected by the choices being made half way across this country and half way across this planet, so until we deal with this issue globally, we’ll continue to deal with destruction and violence locally.
Kirkland: What role, if any, have religious organizations played in the fight against mountaintop removal?
Gibson: There are some good things happening in churches and in religious groups. Christians for the Mountains is a great example. They recognize their God-given responsibility to live sustainably upon the earth. They recognize the moral imperative behind these issues. But I’m hard on a lot of religious organizations because too many of them are wrapped up in coal money. Of any group in the coalfields, coal companies make their largest donations to local churches. These companies are really good at covering all the bases. They’re guaranteed to show up anywhere they suspect resistance. From the local watershed association to the Pentecostal church, you’ll find coal money in all their bank accounts.
Don’t be fooled—these donations aren’t out of generosity or compassion. They could care less if we are sick, poor, or out of work. They make donations to influence public opinion and to have something to point to when they are criticized. And it’s sad because a lot of good people become blinded by these donations. The head of the Cabin Creek Watershed Association goes to public hearings and testifies on behalf of industry, not on behalf of the rivers and watershed communities they are supposedly advocating for. It’s completely backwards, but it’s what happens when money is involved.
Kirkland: I saw the video footage from your 4th of July party on Kayford this past summer. Can you talk about what went on that evening?
Gibson: Every year we have a July 4th picnic to celebrate the beauty and culture of these mountains. People bring their families and we have good food and local musicians playing traditional Appalachian music. This year we had four hundred people show up. The morning of the party I heard from some friends that we should expect a visit from a group of coal thugs. These guys showed up around 7:00 pm after an entire day of drinking and toking. They couldn’t have done what they did if they were sober.
As they came onto my property they starting yelling and cursing at people. They talked about beating women and cutting the throats of children. I won’t repeat some of the things they said. The whole time they were here they ignored me, never spit on me, touched me, nothing. They didn’t acknowledge me because they didn’t come for me—they came to intimidate people like you. I don’t think they planned on beating anyone up, though they would have if we initiated it. They were here to push their message to the edge though intimidation. And it worked. People were very scared. Until we can stand up against it, injustice will continue.
It’s difficult because even after causing that big commotion I consider those troublemakers my people. They don’t recognize that they’re some of the most abused people in this country. The coal companies treat them like garbage, something to be thrown away. They’re stuck in a vice they can’t get out of. I don’t pity them, but I understand them.
Kirkland: You call yourself a dangerous man but you’re also a man in a lot of danger. Did you ever think it would come this far, that you be attacked for speaking out for these mountains, that you might even become a martyr for this cause?
Gibson: I may lose my life fighting this fight, but what’s even worse than living in these terrible conditions we do on Kayford is living in them and doing nothing about it. If that’s your attitude you might as well be dead. I can be trash talked and spit on, but I won’t take a beating for what I believe. I talk to you like this because it might be my last chance to tell you. It might be my last chance to tell anyone. I know people are after me. I know I’ll probably lose my life for having the opinions that I do.
Kirkland: I noticed you were carrying a gun while we were on the ridge. Do you mind me asking?
Gibson: You won’t find me up here without a pistol on me or near me. Look right behind you there’s a bulletproof vest a friend bought for me. I won’t wear it, but it shows you what I’m dealing with. I don’t know if you noticed but the camper I used to live in is full of bullet holes. One day a bunch of miners came up and shot at it and flipped it over thinking I was inside. Now I keep boards in the windows of my cabin and I installed a six-inch thick door to keep intruders from breaking in. If anyone makes it through the door they’ll be something waiting for them inside. If someone tries to hurt my family they better look out.
But let me make this clear—you’ll never see violence coming from me at a public event. I am confronted by a lot of hostility when I go to rallies and protests, but I know I have to stay calm if I want to make a difference. The work we do at public protests and demonstrations shows that we don’t have to use violence to make our voices heard. I will never react in any way that would put someone in danger, and I won’t have my people react that way either.
Kirkland: Do you intentionally put yourself in harms way?
Gibson: Every damn day. If I don’t, the people I’m trying to encourage to get up with me won’t see what needs to be done. Too many people sit around and talk about their problems but don’t do anything to fix them. It’s easier to be complacent, but nothing’s gonna change unless people get up and move.
Here’s the position were being put in—if a public event comes up and we don’t appear, there’s no opposition. Without opposition and differing opinions the coal companies have that much more of an advantage. If we don’t show up at public hearings, they’ll say that people don’t care about these issues. That’s just not true so I’ll be there at every meeting to say so. We can only change these things by being involved in them. We can’t wish them away.
Kirkland: What sets you a part from other activists in the region is that you’re not just against strip mining or mountaintop removal, you’re against coal altogether. How did you come to such a bold position on this issue?
Gibson: There’s a great book about mountaintop removal called We All Live Downstream. On the cover of the book is a picture of a water faucet, something that helped me realize that stopping mountaintop removal on its own isn’t enough. If we stop mountaintop removal without stopping the larger coal economy all we’ve done is turn the faucet down a little. Poison will continue to run through the system.
I argue that we have to turn the faucet all the way off and abolish the use of all coal. You won’t find many people that agree with me, not even some activists, but we all know it’s the truth. Coal kills, period. It kills everything we have in West Virginia—our families, communities, and ecosystems—and it kills long-term. If you want to do anything for me with this interview, tell the world this message: coal will continue to kill people until the facet is turned off completely.
Kirkland: Your critics argue that such a position is unrealistic, most basically because of how it would affect employment.
Gibson: I know that what I’m fighting for means people will lose work. And I know it’s my responsibility to offer alternatives and see what jobs can be brought in, but I can’t do it alone. With responsible leadership I know West Virginia’s economy can move in a radically different direction. Not only can the economy make that shift, it has to. Giving up on that thinking means giving up on a clean and healthy future for the people and mountains of this state.
Kirkland: Any specific alternatives you have in mind?
Gibson: Toyota built a plant in West Virginia about six years ago, but they didn’t build here in the mountains on a reclaimed site like we’re always being promised. Instead they bought land from an old farmer in Buffalo and set up shop. Not only did we miss out on an opportunity for manufacturing jobs in the mountains, but a family farm and perfectly good farmland were also destroyed. A variety other industrial and manufacturing companies have talked about moving to West Virginia, but they all back out because they see problems with working in a “mountain landscape.”
The coal companies are always making promises about creating jobs and building industrial parks and hospitals on reclaimed mountaintop removal sites, but their promises are never fulfilled. Over half a million acres of land have been flattened by mountaintop removal, enough to stretch half a mile wide from New York to California. As of today, less than two percent of the mined land is being used for development purposes. At the present rate of development, we have enough developable land to last 3,000 years.
Kirkland: You think more industry is the answer?
Gibson: My point is that anyone who has an idea for a non-extractive development project in this state should know that we have a very capable labor force. The problem is Governor Manchin doesn’t encourage other industry into West Virginia because he can’t see beyond the coal. That’s been the story here for decades. Without good leadership, people won’t change. You saw it out there today with the security guard. That man, his wife, and his son all work for the same company, and it takes all three of them to make a living. They don’t try to change their circumstances because they’re afraid to do anything else. They’re afraid of the uncertainty.
A lot of coal miners don’t recognize they’re some of the most abused people in this country. The coal companies treat them like garbage, something to be thrown away. They’re stuck in a vice they can’t get out of. If they would realize there’s a better way to make a living than by destroying their own back yard, I think we could see real changes in West Virginia’s economy.
Kirkland: You’ve been an activist for over twenty years and spoken to tens of thousands of people about the effects of mountaintop removal in Appalachia. Do you get tired of telling your story?
Gibson: It’s not a story—it’s my life. I’ve been given a chance to work for justice in West Virginia and that has become my life’s mission. As more and more people move toward action and start putting pressure on the corporations and politicians who are destroying the land—not just in West Virginia but across the world—we’re gonna see some great things happen. I’m not gonna be quiet about it. I’m gonna make so much damn noise people around the world are gonna hear me.
Everything we’ve talked about today fits into the bigger story of extraction, which is really the story of short-term profit. The obsession with profit has put a lot of people in danger here in Appalachia. Since 1993, 550 people have died working in the coalfields of West Virginia. Since they started keeping record in 1997, 210,000 people have died from black lung disease in this state. And they call this cheap energy? It doesn’t matter how fast or slow someone dies, the fact is people are being murdered. The coal companies are responsible for death every single day in Appalachia. How am I supposed to stay calm when my people are dying?
These companies will never understand the connection Appalachian folks have with their land. Most industry people are wealthy people. They’ve never had to do things for themselves—grow a garden, raise cattle, have a smokehouse. There’s a big difference between living on the land and living with the land. When you live with the land you see that it feeds you, provides shelter, and supplies everything you need for life. When you live on the land you see it as something secondary. You don’t experience the effects of its destruction.
Kirkland: Anything else you want to talk about?
Gibson: Let me tell you about my biggest supporter—my wife. This lady sitting right here has more courage than ten damn people. I courted her for four years and she still wanted to marry me after she saw what the coal thugs were doing to me. The first time we were together in this cabin we had two drive-by shootings. I kept telling her how worried I was for her to be with me, that I didn’t want to put her in any danger. But she came back and said, “Larry, I want you for every moment you’ve got left.” That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. She didn’t want to tame me or quiet me down—she simply wanted to love me. We ain’t gonna give up, are we baby?