Kayford Mountain, in Southern West Virginia, wasn’t always the highest peak in the area. It wasn’t always nakedly exposed to the kind of gale-force winds that blew in around 10 PM on Saturday, October 26th, toppling a tree onto a large, communal tent where Appalachian community activists and Oberlin students slept, and throwing an encampment into a state of confusion and varying degrees of terror. After all, it used to be protected by mountains.
That was more than half a century ago. After Congress enacted the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, oil and gas companies began bulldozing the tops of mountains into nearby valleys, completely deforming the landscape of Southern West Virginia and bringing new health risks to long-embattled rural communities, all to make corporate executives and their shareholders rich and to fuel a global society engineered to rely on fossil fuels.
Kayford Mountain is home to Stanley Heirs Park, a public park where this year’s RAMPS summit took place and where members of Students for Energy Justice (SEJ), an Oberlin student organization, camped. Oberlin students have attended RAMPS — Radical Action for Mountain Peoples’ Survival, formerly known as Mountain Justice — for years. It is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to learn the grim facts of environmental depredation in the Appalachian region, and to witness mountaintop removal (MTR) firsthand.
I went on a tour of Kayford Mountain led by Elise Keaton, a longtime community leader and practicing lawyer in Southern West Virginia, on a foggy, windy morning punctuated by drizzling rain. I wasn’t sure, at times, that our group would be able to see the devastated landscape. Thankfully, however, the rain eased up, and the clouds rolled out.
For a weekend jam-packed with educational opportunities, this tour was the highlight. After all, it’s one thing to hear about a landscape destroyed by extractive capitalism, and another thing entirely to see it. As well, Keaton explained the invisible effects of MTR, contextual information that deepened my understanding of the process’ abject horror. Besides destroying the natural beauty of the Appalachians, MTR has a variety of catastrophic consequences for ecosystems that have existed in harmony for centuries and the human communities that they, by all rights, should sustain.
Southern West Virginia, and the Appalachian region, have “abundant clean water resources,” said Keaton. As she pointed out, the headwaters of seven rivers flow out of one county in West Virginia alone! And yet, 300,000 people in nine counties get water delivered from Charleston, a city with a water filtration system that has been poisoned multiple times in the past decade by the chemical industry lying upstream. Why is that? “Their local water resources are already compromised” by MTR.
When Ms. Keaton gestured to the slopes that are still densely covered in trees, she told us what we were looking at was “a huge biomass sponge.” The forest, and the soil system, have the natural property of absorbing rainfall, “a natural system unlike anything we can create.” She then pointed out the tiny town of Dorothy, barely visible in the valley below Kayford. Dorothy, we learned, had encountered unprecedented flooding in recent years. The culprit? No surprise here: MTR stripped that natural sponge from the hills, meaning that less water is absorbed, and more water flows into valley communities. Not only that, MTR reshapes the shape of the land, directing streams into areas that have never before been at risk.
The list of factors — environmental, geographic, social, political, all compounding one another — goes on. The more Keaton said, the more disturbing the whole situation became, and the more I felt an acute sense of dread. However, Keaton made eminently clear that this feeling was not enough. “I ache for these people,” she said, “and I ache for this land. But we are educated, we’re motivated, we’re organized, we give a shit, and we’re not backing down! Because somebody taught us what you can do when you don’t back down.”
That somebody is Larry Gibson, a man who grew up on Kayford Mountain, worked his adult life in the auto industry in Ohio, and returned to Kayford for what he thought would be a peaceful retirement. Then, he heard explosions. Eventually, Keaton said, he realized that they were “blowing up mountains.”
“Larry knew that if he didn’t do something to this mountain, it would be taken away,” said Keaton. This is how Stanley Heirs Park came into existence — thanks to Gibson’s tireless defense of the land, in the face of threats and intimidation and through lengthy legal battles, Kayford Mountain still has a peak.
As Keaton told us, Larry Gibson activated community networks committed to environmental justice through the pure strength of his convictions. When he brought people to Kayford, like he did to Keaton decades ago, he “reached into your chest and grabbed your heart, walked you around this mountain, showed you his truth, and said what are you gonna do about it?” Now, Elise Keaton has taken on that task. She told us precisely what she says Gibson told her, so many years ago: “if you leave here and you don’t do anything about it, then you’ve wasted my time.”
For Keaton, knowing Larry Gibson compelled her to get a law degree and to become a formidable activist in her own right. As an environmentalist, she has encountered bitter resistance from some — but by no means all — West Virginians, whose families, and community identities, are often tied to the coal, natural gas, and chemical industries. Not everybody is on board with her “tree-hugger” agenda, and her activism has often put her in the position of bringing resources to community members who would refuse to acknowledge her. “I felt a little disingenuous when I started this work because I didn’t live in an impacted community,” she admitted on the mountain. “And then they poisoned my water.”
Keaton was referring to the 2014 Elk River chemical spill, an event in which Charleston’s water supply was contaminated by 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), a chemical used to wash coal. “The entire river bank was saturated with chemicals, and it had finally overridden the filter” when Keaton began feeling ill and detecting the unmistakable smell of licorice in her tap water — a smell characteristic of MCHM.
While Earl Ray Tomblin, West Virginia’s governor at the time, went on the stump to protect the coal industry from public scorn, Keaton was mobilizing community networks to deliver clean water to rural communities deep in the mountains. “We had water on the ground in 24 hours,” said Keaton. “Two weeks later, the governor asked us where they should deliver water.”
Keaton’s stories were only a small part of the education I received at Fall Summit. People from the group Appalachians Against Pipelines (AAP) also discussed the ongoing resistance to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a project delivering fracked natural gas from West Virginia to central Virginia where EQT Corporation wants to profit off of the gas by selling it to companies for export. AAP, and other members of its coalition, have been sitting in trees — an ongoing action dubbed the Yellow Finch Tree Sits — and directly blocking the pipeline’s construction, for over 14 months consecutively.
Additionally, organizers conducted workshops teaching the basic building blocks of successful direct action, including a training for prospective worker liaisons and police liaisons, a training on providing effective jail support, and a “know your rights” training oriented around interactions with police.
Going to RAMPS fall summit left me with multiple burdens: the burden of knowing about MTR, among other destructive legacies of the fossil fuel and chemical industries, and the burden of knowing that Elise Keaton wants me to do something. It’s a burden that weighs heavy on me. At the same time, the summit energized me, showed me what resistance can and should look like, and real, concrete ways to become engaged and support communities dealing with both the legacies of oppression and constant new attacks. It was exactly the type of learning experience that committed leftists — and Oberlin students — should actively seek out.