Obama's Green Credentials Tested by Battle Against Mountaintop Mining
James Hansen and Darryl Hannah among those opposing open-cast coal extraction that destroys mountains and forests
It is still technically possible to see the original white paint of
Larry Gibson's pick-up truck beneath the myriad of stickers declaring
his love of West Virginia's mountains and his opposition to coal mining.
it would be a mistake to see the truck as mere conveyance. This is a
mobile command centre in Gibson's one-man 25-year war against King Coal
and the highly destructive mining method known as mountaintop removal.
To watch the video, go here.
video camera in working order? Check. CB Radio on to listen for miners
arriving for their shifts? Check. Luminous green t-shirt and cap for
maximum visibility? Check. And Gibson, who is about five feet tall and
in his 60s is usually armed, like many people in this part of West
"The mountains in West Virginia are the oldest in the
world and now they are gone in the blink of an eye," he said. "I am the
man who is holding the fort down here. I am the man holding them back."
Mountaintop removal begins with the clear-cutting of entire forests
and then the shearing off up to 1,000 vertical feet of mountain peak.
This exposes thin seams of coal that cannot easily be reached by
Some 500 mountaintops across West Virginia,
Virginia and Kentucky have already been replaced by dry flat plateau,
and 1,200 mountain streams have been buried beneath dumped rock and
dirt. By 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more
than 2,200 square miles of Appalachian forest will disappear.
some sites, the mining companies try to rebuild the silhouette of the
old mountain, or replant. But mostly they leave the mountain missing
its crest. In any event, nothing ever grows on the land again, locals
Kayford Mountain, or what Gibson calls his home place, is
one of the frontline positions in an epic confrontation between the
coal industry and a broad coalition of local activists, environmental
organisations, national figures and Hollywood celebrities.
The struggle against mountaintop removal is also proving an uncomfortable test of Barack Obama's green credentials.
US administration has frustrated environmentalists who had relied on
the president to ban a practice that devastates landscapes and uproots
hundreds of local communities.
Robert F Kennedy Jr, the
environmental lawyer and son of the assassinated presidential
candidate, recently accused Obama of presiding over an "Appalachian
James Hansen, the Nasa scientist who coined the term
global warming and who has become a passionate supporter of Gibson,
demanded activists hold the president to account. "We can not continue
to give President Obama a pass on this much longer," Hansen said.
Obama could be upstaged by the Senate which has taken up a bill to ban
mountaintop removal by prohibiting mining companies from dumping debris
in streams. The bill has support from Republicans as well as Democrats.
bill is too late for Gibson's beloved Kayford Mountain. A short stroll
from his campsite brings visitors to a view that looks like something
out of a science fiction film. Giant trucks crawl over the earth on a
vast yellow plateau below; at 5.10pm there is a loud blast.
looks to me like descriptions of places that got bombed in Hiroshima ,"
said Lora Webb, who lives in the nearly abandoned town of Twilight,
which is surrounded by mountaintop mining. "It looks like what I would
imagine if I was going to imagine what hell would look like: dry,
dusty, no air or water."
Webb is about to leave Twilight herself,
exhausted by blasts so forceful they have blown her out of her bed and
on to the floor, shattered her glassware collection , and left a thick
coating of dust on her ceiling fan.
scientific evidence now suggests even more extensive damage from
mountaintop removal than previously understood, with widespread and
potentially permanent damage to water systems. Former mine areas are
more vulnerable to erosion than unspoiled mountainside, and are at
increased risk of flash floods and mud slides.
irrefutable scientific evidence that the environmental impacts of
mountaintop removal are substantial and they are permanent," Margaret
Palmer, a professor at the University of Maryland's centre for
environmental science, told a recent Senate hearing .
"You can't reverse it, at least not in any time span we can recognise as humans."
the EPA has detected high levels of the heavy metal selenium, which can
cause reproductive problems in humans, downstream from mine fill sites.
Government biologists also detected deformities among local fish.
just destroys the health of the people who live here," said Joan
Linville, who lives in the town of Van and whose home was nearly buried
by a mud slide from a mined mountaintop. "One little tiny coal seam and
they keep tearing up the country for miles. It's the most destructive
thing I have ever seen in the 70 years I have been alive and I have
been in every state."
Gibson's war against coal began in the late
80s, soon after an injury forced him into early retirement from a job
at General Motors in Ohio. Around the same time, mining companies began
buying up locals' small plots, and began to dynamite the peaks
Gibson refused to sell out, and based
himself on the mountain in a two-room cabin without running water or
mains electricity. He persuaded his extended clan to come too.
determination made him a hero to environmentalists. Over time, the
patch of mountain has become a pilgrimage to environmental and other
activists, even school groups, with Gibson's wife handling the
scheduling requests. Next month he is due in court with the actress
Daryl Hannah to face charges over a protest action.
also has powerful opponents. Almost half of America's electricity comes
from coal, and mining companies say mountaintop removal is cheaper and
more efficient than tunnelling underground.
In Washington, industry lobbyists claim that locals welcome mountaintop removal — for its development potential.
can take you to places in eastern Kentucky where community services
were hampered because of a lack of flat space — to build factories, to
build hospitals, even to build schools," said Joe Lucas of Americans
for Clean Coal Electricity. "In many places, mountain-top mining, if
done responsibly, allows for land to be developed for community space."
mining no longer fuels West Virginia, accounting for just 7% of the
economy: there are more jobs at Wal-Mart than on the coal face. But
while the number of mining jobs has shrunk from a high of 150,000 to
just 12,000 over the decades, the scarcity of other employment still
leaves plenty of locals threatened by Gibson's crusade.
himself the son and grandson of miners — had his fourth of July protest
picnic broken up by burly men with tattooed and shaven heads, and shots
were fired at his cottage in June. "They just pulled out a gun and went
pop pop pop," he said.
Like other opponents of mountaintop removal, Gibson had been counting on Obama, with his election promises of a clean energy economy, to shift the power balance away from coal.
those hopes evaporated in May when the EPA signed 42 permits for
mountaintop removal while turning down only six — a higher ratio even
than during the latter part of the George Bush presidency. Some 170
more permits are pending, according to the Sierra Club.
the White House announced it would strengthen oversight of mining
operations, but it refused to endorse a ban on the dumping of debris
into mountain streams.
That stand has infuriated Obama's natural
allies. Gibson sees it as pure betrayal. "I think Obama's going to fall
into line like the last president we had," he said. "He has developed
into a coccoon that is going to end up not being a butterfly but a