By Maya Nye ’99, outgoing alumni relations officer for volunteer management*
Earlier this year, professors Geneva Gano and Lewis Trelawny-Cassity invited me to contribute to the coal section of the Energy Global Seminar. Coming from West Virginia, one of the foremost coal producing states in the country, my knowledge on the subject is vast and almost inherent.
While my family hails from the coalfields of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky—my grandfather an underground coal miner for some time and my mother previously employed by the industry—I am one generation removed. In order to provide an authentic learning opportunity for students, I called upon my resources so students could learn from the experts themselves, the people directly impacted by coal.
An example of mountaintop removal.
In August, my friend, Dr. Shirley Stewart Burns, spoke to the class. Shirley is a native of the southern coalfields of West Virginia. Her family has made their living as underground coal miners for generations. Her father died of the deadly Black Lung disease when she was just a teenager. While working full-time, Shirley put herself through college finally gaining a doctorate degree in history with an Appalachian focus from West Virginia University. Her dissertation, Bringing Down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal on Southern West Virginia Communities, was the first academic book on mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia and is widely considered as the most complete look at the topic to date.
Shirley’s presentation to the class covered the complex social, cultural, political, and environmental relationships resulting from the process of mountaintop removal coal mining. It was coupled with a screening of the documentary Coal Country a riveting exploration of the environmental, political, and societal impacts of coal mining in Appalachia.
The presentation was well attended by students and more than a dozen Miami Valley area residents. In the discussion that followed, students deliberated on questions surrounding the environmental and human rights component of coal-fired power generation. They discussed topics including the health impacts of coal-fired power generation, implications on the nation’s fresh water supply resulting from the process of mountaintop removal, and the global ramifications of ceasing this form of energy production as we know it. They made comparisons about coal-fired energy to other forms of energy production including natural gas production and the use of hydro-fracking, as well as forms of alternative fuels including wind energy. Yet somehow, coming up with the right solution to remedy the world’s problems never seems to come at the end of class.
Larry Gibson’s lodge, “Almost Heaven.”
To further deepen the learning on this topic, Randle Charles, resident life manager, and I led a group of students on an overnight camping trip to Kayford Mountain, West Virginia.
Kayford Mountain is a stronghold surrounded by mountaintop removal that has been preserved by Larry Gibson and his family who have lived on the mountain for over 200 years. In 1996, on my first co-op, I met Larry near the beginning of his struggle to save his land. In 2000, when I co-led Antioch’s Environmental Field Program, we took students to Kayford to see what mountaintop removal looked like and learn about its impacts from the people of Appalachia first hand. The impression this made on the students was so profound that I wanted to provide that opportunity again to the new group of Antioch College students. This time, the trip was optional for students taking the Energy Global Seminar as a way to deepen their knowledge on the topic of coal regardless of whether or not they chose the subject for their final project. The opportunity was seized upon by students Marianthe Bickett ’15, Elijah Blanton ’15, Jennifer Carlson ’15, and Rachael Smith ’15.
The journey to Kayford Mountain led us across the Ohio River, recently noted as the most toxic river in the United States, and past John Amos Power Plant, one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the United States. Many of the students on the trip had never seen a coal-fired power plant before. I knew it all too well as this plant is five miles away from where I grew up and where my family still lives. On the way up the mountain, the students were surprised to see the string of coal cars moving along the train tracks. This, too, was all too familiar to me having grown up right across the street from the train tracks that haul this coal to John Amos Power Plant for processing.
Students listen to and record Larry Gibson discussing mountaintop removal.
On this weekend, Larry hosted his second annual Labor Day weekend gospel music festival with the hope of bringing people from the faith community together to promote stewardship of the land and people. During this event, students had the opportunity to listen to gospel music as well as to hear Ken Hechler, the oldest surviving person to have served in the United States Congress, speak. Hechler, a close friend to Larry, was a White House assistant to Harry Truman and was the only member of Congress to march with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. He also led the Congressional charge enacting the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969 that provided more stringent laws to protect miners. In his more recent years, Hechler has served as a self-proclaimed “hell raiser,” actively advocating for the end of mountaintop removal because of its devastating effects to people, the economy, and the environment. During his speech, he sang his revised version John Denver’s “Country Roads” with lyrics starting off as, “Almost level, West Virginia . . . .”
Our students also had the opportunity to meet Chuck Nelson, an ex-underground union miner who was blacklisted from coal mining for speaking up against the safety violations he witnessed in his workplace. Chuck was featured in Coal Country, the documentary film that accompanied Shirley Stewart Burns’ presentation.
Since Larry had come straight from the hospital to the festival, he was in no shape to lead the typical tour of his property. Chuck kindly guided the festival participants to the edge of Larry’s land, a spot that has been documented time and again by major news organizations including CNN, The New York Times, Newsweek, and The Guardian (UK). It was here where students saw what mountaintop removal looks like.
Students hike to see firsthand an example of mountaintop removal.
Chuck described the process of mountaintop removal beginning with the dynamite used to expose the coal seam to the dumping of the “overburden” into the adjacent valleys covering up the headwater streams. He talked about the health impacts of this form of natural resource extraction and the recent studies indicating high levels of cancer and birth defects in mountaintop removal communities. Chuck talked about the importance of the mountains to the people who live there. He pointed out Coal River Mountain across the filled in valley from Kayford and how the coal company had fought a community-proposed wind farm because this sustainable proposition would not yield as great a profit for them as would mountaintop removal.
After the tour of Larry’s land, the festival drew to a close. We spent the evening discussing the experience with each other and others camping out. On Sunday morning, Larry brought us down a pot of coffee from his cabin. Finally, the students had the opportunity to hear from Larry in what felt like a Sunday morning sermon. He told us stories of growing up on Kayford and how vibrant his community was before mountaintop removal came in. He told us of his interactions with politicians and angry people who threatened his life. He taught us about the value of faith in his community, and the importance of connecting systems of oppression to stand up for human rights.
The journey home to Yellow Springs from Kayford produced some of the best discussions I have engaged in with our students. They drew upon their readings, Shirley’s presentation and the experience on the mountain to make clear connections between sustainability and matters of social and economic justice. They demonstrated their understanding of the different roles played by industry, politics, culture and the environment. They made intersections between the Energy and Water Global Seminars and discussed how the topic could even fit into the upcoming Health Global Seminar. The reflection piece of experiences like this is what provides the ability to transfer the learning to other situations and what makes experiential education at Antioch so powerful.
Another example of mountaintop removal.
It is easy, however, to walk away from such experiences with a heavy heart and not a lot of solutions to the world problems presented. Above all else, Larry made clear our responsibility to share the information that we had learned with others.
Elijah, Jennifer and Marianthe put together a video of their experience based on the photos and audio they captured on the trip. A work in progress, the video will be posted on the Antioch College YouTube page as soon as complete.
Jennifer was inspired to come on the trip because of a sticker she saw on campus produced by one of the students who went with me to Kayford on EFP in 2000. Jennifer also works with WYSO and is working on a radio piece connecting the dots of mountaintop removal to the Dayton area.
Rachael, along with student Meg Miller ’15, attended a forum with me the weekend following our Kayford trip where she had the opportunity to meet scientists doing work supporting the health claims of affected mountaintop removal communities. This experience fueled her with a renewed commitment to her rigorous science studies at Antioch.
On September 9, one week after our trip to Kayford, Larry passed away of a heart attack. Our students were among the last people to spend time learning from Larry. The obituary of his extraordinary life and struggle was published in the Washington Post. Getting to know Larry and visiting his mountain forever changed my life, and I was fortunate enough to share that with two groups of Antioch students. Rest in peace, good buddy. Thanks for all you taught me. Until we meet again . . . .
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* Editor’s Note: As noted in the byline, Maya will be taking on a new role as a resident life manager, giving her the opportunity to work closely with students as she did on this project. We wish her well and are in the process of searching for a new alumni relations officer for volunteer management.