KAYFORD MOUNTAIN, W Va, Sept 28 (Reuters) Larry Gibson's tiny house sits in a green oasis on top of the Appalachian peak his family has called home for 230 years. The setting would be peaceful if not for the roar of machinery scraping away the surrounding mountain in search of coal.
''It's a noisy, dusty place. They dynamite constantly,'' said Gibson, 61. ''It's the genocide of Appalachia, the destruction of a people who have lived in these mountains forever.'' Gibson has emblazoned the wooden cabin he calls home with a banner calling for an end to mountaintop mining, along with the words ''We are the keepers of the mountains ... don't destroy them'' -- his defiant stand against coal companies who have offered to buy his land.
''How can I tell people to stand up if I don't do it myself?'' Gibson asked. ''The land I stand on is worth more than the almighty dollar.'' Coal mining has sustained generations of Americans in Appalachia, an isolated and often impoverished region stretching across America's eastern interior. Mine shafts and coal conveyors dot the hamlets and hollows where miners live amid the splendor of smoky mountains and hardwood forests.
But while the US appetite for coal has long bumped against the environmental impact of mining, the growth of mountaintop removal has divided residents as never before.
Church groups urge congregants to write to Congress to stop mountaintop mining. University students converge on West Virginia in the summer to demand ''mountain justice.'' Protesters lead prayer vigils to save the mountains.
LIGHTS ON But while environmentalists say mountaintop mining destroys forests, pollutes streams and floods communities, industry experts say the decade-old practice provides much-needed jobs and the steady supply of coal that America relies on for more than half of its electricity needs.
''Coal keeps the lights on,'' West Virginia Coal Association vice-president Chris Hamilton said simply, adding that mountaintop mining is not only safer than underground mining, but produces coal that is lower in sulfur - and hence more climate-friendly - than the coal removed from deeper in the earth.
West Virginia's 271 surface coal mines employ some 7,000 workers, while another 13,500 work in the state's 330 underground mines, all earning a salary more than double the state average, according to the association.
Hamilton said the flattening of West Virginia's mountains also gives the area a head-start on non-mining development long hampered by the state's hilly terrain, providing flat land for airports, prisons and golf courses. Environmentalists say that argument is ridiculous, given the remote location of most of the mountaintop mines.
The devastation of mountaintop mining, which began in earnest in the 1990s, is impossible to miss from the air.
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