Final resting places are supposed to be peaceful sanctuaries. Tall old trees often shade stately gravestones in an atmosphere of respect for deceased ancestors.
Not so at the Stanley Family Cemetery on Kayford Mountain.
Larry Gibson points out the two black marks on the ground in front of and alongside the Stanley headstone. These were left from the flyrock blasted from the mountaintop mine that comes as close as 200 feet to the Stanley cemetery.
If you stand near the edge of the graveyard, you can watch the mountains on three sides being lowered by mountaintop removal. "I used to look up at the mountains. But now I look down on them," says Larry Gibson, a Stanley descendant who has made it his life work to save Kayford Mountain from the mines. And then he'd like to stop mountaintop mining completely in West Virginia.
Gibson, 52, was born on Kayford Mountain. But he moved to Cleveland with his family as a child. After retiring from General Motors on disability in the early 1980s, he returned to West Virginia, and his mountain. He found the family's 500 acres had shrunk to 50 acres. The coal company had acquired the rest.
The battle began. First he began cleaning the large graveyard. In 1992, he formed a nonprofit foundation of the Stanley family heirs. They have a small campground of little houses and house trailers, along with one new log cabin. Some of the people who return to camp grew up on the mountain. They remember that once there was open land for farming. Coal for warming the house came out of the side of the mountain. Food came from the land, which was abundant with berries and game. Now the family members gather on holidays for cookouts and song fests. Sometimes Gibson invites dignitaries to speak at the gatherings, hoping for more publicity and support for saving the mountain.
The cemetery is around the corner and up a small hill from the campground. Often when Gibson drives up the hill, he listens to the two-way radio for notification of blasts. When the shots are set off, they reverberate through the graveyard. Rocks periodically land near the graves. They leave behind slightly indented marks in the ground covered with a thin layer of black shale. During the past year, the mine often sent a worker over to pick the stones out of the graveyard after a blast.
By law, mines can come up to 100 feet of a cemetery, and 300 feet of a home. However, this law was set two decades ago before mountaintop mining was pervasive in southern West Virginia and before such large blasts were used.
Cemeteries can also be moved to make way for mines. This is happening in some parts of the southern part of the state. In some cases, residents report that their families small graveyards have simply been bulldozed away and covered up by the mines.
Since Kayford Mountain is just 45 minutes from Charleston, it is one of the most visited and photographed mountaintop removal mines in the state. Those who visit for the first time are usually shocked: "On three sides of Kayford, the former mountains have been blasted and gouged by immense mechanized shovels until there's just a vast wasteland of rubble," wrote Dianne Bady of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coaltion. "And monster machinery is gearing up to rip out more seams of coal by systematically leveling what-used-to-be-mountains. This isn't 'just' mountaintop removal strip mining, it's total annihilation of entire mountains."