“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” – Habakkuk 1:2
Kayford Mountain once was home to a thriving small town. It wasn’t even that small; in 1900 it was bigger than Charleston, the capital of West Virginia. It had everything one would expect to find in a small town, schools, churches, general stores, and a close-knit and caring community. Ironically, the one thing Kayford Mountain never had was electricity. Kayford Mountain is now being sacrificed so that people around the country can have cheap electricity.
Today there is only one person living on Kayford Mountain, Larry Gibson. Everyone else has been driven off by coal mining. All around Kayford, mountains are being destroyed. Over 3.5 million pounds of dynamite are used each day to obliterate the tops of mountains and scrape out the valuable coal underneath.
I met Larry at the base of Kayford Mountain and got to ride up with him in his pick-up truck. It was a frightening ride for me. In the truck, he has a truck radio so he can listen to the coal trucks that use the road talk about him, as well as a video camera to record any incidents. As he told us about the 147 acts of violence he’s had to endure since 1984 when he refused to sell his land to the coal company and started fighting to save his mountain, he reminded us that it only takes on trucker having a bad day to cause trouble for us.
We made it to the top of the mountain listening to Larry tell us where churches and stores used to be, and pointing out damage done along the roadside by large pieces of fly rock (fly rock is literally rock that goes flying during a dynamite blast). I could tell that Larry could still see the mountain the way it used to be when he was growing up.
Deeply embedded in Appalachian culture is a strong sense of place. Families have spent generations living on those mountains, farming, mining coal, and growing up together. Coal mining is a way of life in Appalachia, and so is the desire to both grow up and grow hold in the same “holler.” As mountaintop removal mining has started to make certain areas unlivable, conflicts have erupted between local property holders who want to keep their land and those who want the jobs provided by coal.
From an outside perspective, I know that machinery and dynamite heavy practices like mountaintop removal are the reason that West Virginia now employs 17,000 miners instead of 145,000. The site photographed from Kayford Mountain employs between 7 and 19 people, varying by season. But this has only made people more desperate for jobs, and coal is the only way to make a living that many people know. In the long-run, miners may know that the economy needs to diversify and move away from being solely reliant on coal. But the long-run will not feed a family for the next few months.
I had seen pictures of mountaintop removal mining before, but the pictures can’t even come close to doing it justice. The scale is simply enormous, and this was not one of the biggest mines that’s been built. The yellow earthmover in the picture below has tires about 6 feet tall, to help give a sense of scale. Some sites have machines called draglines that are 20 stories high. To put that in some perspective(especially for those of you who have been to DC)., that’s as if they stacked all three house office buildings and two senate office buildings on top of each other, and put them to work extracting coal from a newly topless mountain.
The scale of the problem is immense, requiring a transition that respects miners, economic realities, environmental necessities, and the rights of local people. My trip to West Virginia left me wondering, like Habakkuk, how long the Lord would turn a deaf ear to the cries of his people. I have no answers. But Habakkuk, after three chapters of bitter complaint about the suffering of the just concludes:
“yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” Habakkuk 3:18