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Seacoast Online (New Hampshire)

Environmental Activists Bring Coal Fight to Seacoast

Jeanné McCartin

Larry Gibson of Dorothy, W.Va., overlooks the Kayford mountaintop removal mining site. Gibson, whose family has owned land here for 235 years, calls the method as "the genocide of Appalachia." (Jeff Gentner / AP file)

There's 600 miles as the crow flies between New Hampshire and West Virginia's mountain coal country. Worlds apart. No connection beyond a national affiliation.

Deb Cinamon Whalen of East Kingston, like many of her fellow New Hampshire-ites, held that view -- if she ever gave it any thought at all. But since becoming aware there's a grave thread between them, Whalen has become a connection between the states and is trying to forge an ever-greater awareness of how the two are tied together. "It's coal," she says. "Mountain Top Removal."

Her interest and concern led her to Larry Gibson, a West Virginian environmental activist who has made it his calling to enlighten those outside Kayford Mountain home that we're in this together. Whalen has helped arrange a number of events featuring Gibson, here to shed light on a dark subject.

"Most of us don't think we use coal. ...; But we use it for our electricity here in New Hampshire." Much of it comes directly from Mountain Top Removal (MTR), she says.

"I believe we have to understand where the energy is coming from," says Whalen. "It's a connection with them, right here in New Hampshire. Fifty percent of our energy is from coal mining."

"People in New Hampshire ...; are shocked to find out about our use of coal," she says. "They just turn a light on, they don't think they're using coal."

Whalen knew of MTR, but wasn't thoroughly informed, nor aware of its strong connection with New Hampshire. She was moved to action after reading an enlightening article that focused on Gibson.

"He not only talked about the damage, he talked about the people that were living there. And that's when I realized I needed to connect our people. ...; Those (in MTR regions) are losing their culture, (they're) being put out of their homes. I realized we needed to connect our communities."

Gibson is a hold out, fighting to save a patch of mountaintop land and to educate those outside the region on MTR's impact on his and their community.

Gibson has taken his message to the United Nations, was nominated for the first CNN Hero, and appeared in numerous publications including People, Orion and National Geographic.


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Whalen, an artist -- today an eco-artist -- decided to make the connection with her work. She designed an Earth-healing blanket, initially creating them with students in classroom projects.

The blankets are literally for the earth; laid in the ground. Their wool fleece fibers, gathered from local farms, are embedded with seeds. As the blanket disintegrates it gives the seeds a hold and nourishment. They may include mushrooms, natural materials, acorns, maple leaves or other natural elements.

"They are also bedding for mice and chipmunks. The little animals can use the blankets for nesting, and the seeds that are not viable become food," she explains. "Eventually there is nothing left. The deterioration of it adds organic material to the Earth itself. It's part of the system as it breaks down. ...; They help jump-start that specific area."

The plan was always to send them to areas with MTR. The first one created was sent to Gibson. The West Virginian man was touched by Whalen's gift and invited her to visit. Gibson, though offered millions for the property, has preserved his family's land on Kayford Mountain. His efforts attracted threats; two family dogs were shot. But he's held fast believing it was important for education.

Whalen went to meet Gibson at his home. "It's so heart-wrenching to see what's happening. You can look at pictures and it's always a horrible thing -- but to see it in real life. You're walking in woods, where it's all nice and then it's like the gates of hell."

It's completely devastated, she says. MTR first burns, cuts and bulldozes trees, then pushes them into valleys below. Then come the 80-foot deep holes that are packed with explosives. They're blown "and then the whole mountain section goes up in the air and comes down as rubble and creates fly rock (could be a boulder) that can land a half mile away. It's dangerous to live near here," she says.

After the coal is stripped the land is supposed to be reclaimed. "There's no top soil, no trees, roots, nothing. They plant genetically modified grass to try to stop the erosion. ...; They're considered reclaimed when the grass grows, and they throw some trees on it," says Whalen. "This area is one of the most diverse forests in the world these Appalachian Mountains. It's called the seedbed of North American. ...; Devastated."

The effect beyond the mountain is equally damaging, she adds.

And there's more, a lot more. Whalen hopes people will come out and hear it from a man who's living with it, find out what the real cost of coal is. The events will also include a representative from the Sierra Club to speak to New Hampshire's involvement and the film "Black Diamonds"

What's important is we understand what's happening, says Whalen, and the connection between West Virginia coal mining country and the lights of New Hampshire.

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