by Suzanne Goldenberg
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.
But 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.
Windscreen-mounted 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 Virginia.
"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 underground tunnels.
Some 500 mountaintops across West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky have already been replaced by dry flat plateau, and 1,200 mountain streams have been buried beneath dumped rock and dirt.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.
At 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 say.
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.
The 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 apocalypse".
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.
Now 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.
The 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.
"It 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.
Emerging scientific 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.
"There is 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."
Meanwhile, 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.
"It 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 surrounding Kayford.
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.
His 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.
But Gibson 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.
"I 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."
Coal 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.
Gibson — 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.
But 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.
In June, 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 corporate president."
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