Skip to main content

Mountain Heroes: Larry Gibson

Larry Gibson: My Mountain Story

When he watched mountaintop removal mining raze the mountain all around his home and family’s land on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia, Larry Gibson became one of the country’s first people to speak out against this extreme and egregiously irresponsible mining practice. When there was hardly a gaggle of people brave enough to go against the grain of Big Coal in Appalachia, Larry railed against the destruction and injustice that he saw happening all around him. He bought himself some highlighter-yellow T-shirts and printed a simple message on them, calling for reinforcement from anyone with the courage to join the fight: "We Are the Keepers of the Mountains, Love Them or Leave Them, Just Don't Destroy Them. If You Dare to Be One Call 304-542-1134." Today, as he travels the country in his signature fluorescent shirts educating the public on through his Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, he is a hero to many in the movement to stop mountaintop removal mining. He was named one of CNN's "Heroes" in 2007, has appeared on ABC's 20/20, testified before the United Nations, and has spoken to thousands of community, church, and university groups across the country. His courage to stand up and speak out against mountaintop removal mining has inspired and given voice to countless other Americans who live with the injustices of environmental pollution and destruction. Standing at just above five feet tall, Larry’s leadership in the movement to bring justice to Appalachia is larger than life.

Larry Gibson passed away from a heart attack on September 9, 2012, while at his beloved Kayford Mountain. Earthjustice Campaign Manager Liz Judge shares her memories of this incredible man who just a few months ago took her up to Kayford to see the devastation in Mourning A Hero And A Friend. Multimedia Producer Chris Jordan-Bloch reminisces on meeting Larry and the making of his Mountain Heroes video story in Part Of Me Stayed There. Senior Legislative Counsel Joan Mulhern remembers her first meeting with Larry, more than a decade ago, in Hero For Those "Who Don't Have A Say".

This is Larry's story:

My name is Larry Gibson, and I’m standing on top of my family’s land on Kayford Mountain. All around me in every direction on this very mountain is mountaintop removal mining. This family land is an island of rich green in a sea of barren wasteland.

They say I have 39 seams of coal here, underneath our land. They also say this land is worth $650 million to the coal industry. But there’s not enough money that’s been printed or made that can buy this place. There are some things money shouldn’t be able to buy.

When I was a boy, we had 60 families living here. We had a general store, a school, and a church. This place has been in the family more than 235 years. From this place, we didn’t just get our shelter, our warmth, our food, our medicine – we got everything we needed in life.

My mother gave me birth, but this land gave me life. Growing up here was an adventure every day. I played with my pet bobcat, my fox, my hawk. All of these things, the good Lord provided on this land.

But just a stone’s throw away, on that mountaintop removal mining site, you couldn’t find anything alive if you wanted to. It’s bare rock, uninhabitable. Some Native Americans believe we should think seven generations ahead. When you look out on this site, it’s clear we haven’t done that.

I remember when they started mining here. It was a fine day: pretty sky, no clouds. All of a sudden I heard thunder in the distance. Couldn’t see no clouds, but we heard thunder. That was in spring of ’86.

By the fall of ’86, it was upon us – we could see the dynamite explosions and we were breathing in their dust.

Then by the spring of ’87, we could taste it in our mouths. It was foreign. We didn’t know what it was, or if it was legal to blow up a mountain. I mean, who does that? I just didn’t believe it, I couldn’t fathom it. But I was hearing it, and I was seeing it in the distance, and then finally I could throw a rock and hit it.

I was like most people in this country who don’t know about mountaintop removal mining, but I saw things I never dreamed I would see as an adult. I’d be sitting in my cabin, and the dishes would start shaking. Then, suddenly everything would start shaking! Things would break. My world as I knew it was coming to an end. You don’t even realize what you’ve got until you lose it.

One of the first things that I did was educate myself about what was happening to the water downstream, and how people were paying the price for this mining with their health and their lives. With mountaintop removal, the companies get all the coal. They leave nothing behind, except medical problems for people nearby.

I first set out to save my mountain, Kayford Mountain. By establishing a land trust, we saved our piece of it forever. Now, I fight to save all mountains, and all the people living in them. Because this movement can’t be about just me. It can’t be about just this mountain. It has to be about the people who don’t have a say, like our children and grandchildren.

Thirty years ago, I said, "Gosh, don’t anybody know what they’re doing out here? How come nobody’s stopping it?" People said, "In six months we’ll have this fixed." It’s been the longest six months of my life. The most common question asked of me is why I keep fighting after 30 years and 7,538 acres lost? It's not complex at all. It's that I'm right. Plain and simple. And mountaintop removal mining is wrong.

But today, things are changing. We are making a difference. Our movement is picking up. People are starting to listen, especially our youth. I hear older folks constantly say that our kids today don’t have direction. I disagree. I’ve spoken to young kids from one end of this country to the other. If you give them the information, and they see mountaintop removal mining, you won’t be able to stop them from trying to end it. And I know we will end it together.