Appalachians Speak Out (part 3)

posted by Josh Ran

Larry Gibson
Larry Gibson

After a long and bumpy ride, we arrived at Larry Gibson’s property. Larry hosts an annual 4th of July party, and this year Massey workers showed up drunk and threatening violence. Larry knew they were coming, and knew they had started drinking at 9 a.m. to build up the nerve to finally show up around 7 pm. The only reason there wasn’t violence was because there were several people with video cameras filming them. After the incident, Larry made repeated calls to the State and Federal government, and many calls to local law enforcement, West Virginia’s State Troopers. The FBI finally showed up 5 weeks after the event took place. They told him that no federal laws were broken, despite video footage of a man threatening to kill and woman and her two kids. According to the FBI, they “have the right to express themselves.”

Larry was preparing for a big Labor Day party, and he was fairly certain there would be violence. He had hung a “Coal keeps West Virginia poor” sign on the patio, right next to his “Friends of the Mountains” sign, and when we arrived he noticed it had been torn down. He was clearly shaken because he hadn’t noticed that anyone had entered his property. While we were there, he put in calls to try to arrange security for the upcoming event, but he didn’t sound hopeful that the police would be of any help. In fact, he has had no call backs for his request for state law enforcement support. Since the incident on the 4th the State Troopers came once to see what the fuss was about, didn’t take a statement and did not give Larry their names when he asked.

Because of his activism, Larry has experienced 136 acts of violence. His property and neighbors’ property has been shot up (we saw bullet holes), and his dog was hung on his porch and almost killed.

In June, Larry was arrested along with Daryl Hannah, climatologist Jim Hansen, RAN Executive Director Michael Brune and dozens of Coal River Valley residents in a protest to stop mountaintop removal. Larry plead not guilty and he’s looking forward to making his case before a jury and the public. He holds the state and law enforcement in contempt and wants to tell the world.

When I made a blog post earlier in my trip, somebody kindly suggested that I take a hike (I believe he recommended Afghanistan). Since I was in Appalachia, I went for brief hike with Larry and my friends. He took us up the hill past some his cousins’ homes to a mountaintop removal site. He told us about how he felt the blasts when they blew up the mountain (it’s more than 400 feet shorter than it used to be). And he told us that the 310 year old cemetery where his family is buried slid over a high wall, and he can’t get there anymore. At the time, he was negotiating with the company to try to save it. It was against the law to destroy it, “but who cares?”

MTR site near Larry's property
MTR site near Larry's property

While below-ground mines used to employ more than 500 workers, the massive mine behind Larry’s property employs all of 19 people. And since Massey isn’t a union company, the miners make about $12/hour (union workers typically make twice that). Hardly the stuff you’d want to base an entire economy on. Larry also disputes claims that MTR is so much safer than underground mining. This year, they’ve already lost nine people in mining accidents, and six were from surface mining.

The biggest industries in West Virginia are mining, Walmart and tourism, in that order. Larry says that the Governor simply won’t pursue other industries because the coal company wants to keep wages down and have its pick of the workers.

Larry fully expects to lose his life in this battle, but he won’t stop. He says it’s not about being brave, it’s about being right. His message to the rest of us: If it can happen here with coal, it can happen anywhere else in this country where there’s something of value that somebody can make money from. It’s our fight too. We need to take a stand.