Front Porch Blog

Go Tell It on the Mountain

What Gibson has not gotten used to, however, is the view. The rolling, verdant countryside below Gibson’s home has been home to hundreds of isolated and close-knit Appalachian mining communities for generations. Much taller peaks that rose high above Gibson’s home and filled the surrounding scenery, however, once surrounded Kayford mountain.

Pop The Top

Since the 1980s, coal companies have engaged in a systematic destruction of the mountains, dubbed “mountaintop removal,” (MTR) in an effort to reach the abundant coal seams that lie beneath West Virginian soil. The peaks surrounding Kayford have all vanished, and with them have gone most of the area’s inhabitants. Kayford was once home to a thriving mining community; Gibson estimates that over 4,000 lived and worked here just decades ago.

Today there is just one inhabitant left–Larry Gibson. Gibson lives alone, weathering the attacks and intimidations of the nearby coal companies–led by coal giant Massey Energy–who have turned their attentions towards Kayford, one of the few mountaintops in the area that is still standing.

MTR mining, referred to by some as “strip mining on steroids,” is rapidly supplanting underground mining as the coal extraction method du jour. Where underground mining requires hundreds of miners, only handfuls of workers and massive quantities of explosives are needed to blast the tops off mountains.

The results are devastating. Just down the road from Gibson’s cabin, past a feeble, rusted gate which Gibson has christened the “Gate of Hell,” you can witness West Virginia’s future as it sits uncomfortably with its past. Where a mountain peak once rose 700 feet above Kayford, instead a spawning, empty chasm sits like an open wound in the countryside. Thousands of feet below, antlike cars and gargantuan machines navigate a barren terrain that looks more like a transmission from the Mars Rover than anything of this world. From this open pit, the coal travels along a labyrinth of shoots and conveyor belts into the basin below, termed the Coal River Valley, a narrow hollow where most Appalachianers make their home.

Killer King

In West Virginia, coal is king, and nowhere are the indelible footprints of King Coal more visible than Coal River Valley. Take the narrow, winding Route 3 south from nearby Racine and you will drive through tiny, unincorporated hamlets with names like Eden, Montcoal and Rock Creek. Pass through Sylvester and you will see massive covered silos–covered because residents sued coal companies after years of breathing in coal dust. Just down the road, you will pass homes covered in sludge, uninhabitable and without resale value.

Further south, take a stop at Whitesville and you will be in a modern-day ghost town. The decline in organized labor and the shift from underground to mountaintop-removal mining has thoroughly depressed living conditions and driven away businesses. Residents recall when Whitesville was the cultural and economic heart of the Coal River Valley–decades ago there were no less that 27 inns and bars in the mining town. Today there are two.

Follow Route 3’s twists and turns farther south and you will come across tiny Sundial, W.Va.; looming just yards behind Sundial’s Marsh Fork Elementary is a giant coal silo. The school, with over 200 students, also sits less than 500 yards from 2.8 billion gallon sludge impoundment dam owned and operated by Goals Coal Co., a Massey subsidiary. The whole complex forms a processing center for Massey coal, mined through MTR.

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