KAYFORD, West Virginia - The traditional lifestyle of the Appalachian peaks of West Virginia is under threat from mining companies who blow the summits off mountains to reach the coal deposits that lie beneath the surface.
"They are killing off the culture of the mountain people," said Maria Gunnoe, who lives on a hillside which has had its insides dug out to expose a huge mine called Jupiter.
"We are fighting not only for right now but also for yesterday and tomorrow," she said.
Mountaintop removal mining, or MTR, is not only affecting traditions, but also polluting drinking water and air in the region.
In 2003, Gunnoe's home was smothered by a muddy landslide caused by Jupiter.
The well water she drinks has been rendered unpotable after being polluted by the mineral selenium, she says.
"They put profit above all -- above jobs and above people's health," said Larry Gibson, 62, an activist against MTR who lives in Kayford.
"Sometimes they blast 10 times a day and bury the waste and chemical products," said Gibson, who has been waging war against MTR for more than 20 years.
"Twenty years ago, I couldn't get two people to listen. Now people are listening," Gibson said.
He has transformed the 50 acres of land that belong to his family into a park, which is surrounded by 13 mountaintop mines.
"They told me once: you are an island; we will be the ocean," he said.
In the tiny town of Sylvester, 78-year-old Pauline Canterberry has opened another battlefront against the mining companies.
She and her neighbor fought long and hard in the courts to get the biggest regional mining company, the Massey Energy Corporation, to control the emission of coal dust from Elk Run, a nearby mine.
The US Environmental Protection Agency defines mountaintop removal as "a mining practice where the tops of mountains are removed, exposing the seams of coal.
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"Mountaintop removal can involve removing 500 feet or more of the summit to get at buried seams of coal. The earth from the mountaintop is then dumped in the neighboring valleys," it says.
Anti-MTR groups say at least 470 mountains in several states have been decapitated by companies practising the controversial mining method, and show satellite photos from the Internet to prove their point.
Chris Hamilton, spokesman for the West Virginia Coal Association, played down the environmental impact of the mining technique.
"Mountaintops are like brain cells: I'm not sure I can tell you exactly how many we have," he told AFP.
He defended MTR, saying the positive economic impact of West Virginia's mining industry far outweighed any negative effects.
"We export more coal from West Virginia around the world than any other state," he said.
"There is some occasional situation where a mine operation and a community come a little close together but I submit to you that it's not the routine, not the norm," he added.
"When you look at the volume of coal that's moved around this state to improve the quality of life and contribute to the economy of the world, (negative incidents) truly represent just a small fraction of the overall volume," he said.
Gunnoe has built a fence around her land, claiming to have been threatened because of her anti-MTR militancy.
Gibson, too, says he has been threatened.
"My camp has been shot at several times. There's been the killing of my dog, the burning of my cabin," he said.
Hamilton reacted to the claims of violence with incredulity.
"I don't believe that. We are civilized here in West Virginia," he said.
© 2008 Agence France Presse