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Prominent W.Va. environmental activist Gibson dead at 66

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A prominent West Virginia environmental activist died at a Charleston hospital on Sunday, a family member confirmed.

Larry Gibson, a vocal opponent of the controversial practice of mountaintop removal mining and organizer of the long-running Mountain Keeper Music Festival, died of an apparent heart attack while working at his cabins on Kayford Mountain, his daughter, Victoria, said Sunday night.

He was 66 years old.

He was working up on the mountain Sunday morning with his wife, Carol, and a cousin. He was moving lumber from a porch when he began to feel odd, Victoria said.

He sat in his truck to rest but still didn't feel right, she said. Family members called for help and emergency crews made the decision to fly him by helicopter to Charleston Area Medical Center's Memorial Hospital in Kanawha City. He died at the hospital.

"When my dad passed away you could still smell the mountain air on him," Victoria said. "You could still see the dirt underneath his nails and the stains on his hands. He was working.

"He lived his life devoted to the mountain."

Victoria, 24, could recall going with her father as a young child to speak out against mountaintop removal. He was passionate about the subject because it was destroying the home he knew as a child, she said.

"He had so much fire in his voice," she said. "He had so much passion. It'd make you shake. He could bring a whole room of people to tears."

Born and raised in Kayford, Gibson had a rough life, said Regina Hendrix, a close family friend and fellow activist. He lived in several different coal camps and was very attached to the area.

"He had a rough childhood," Hendrix said. "The woods were his comfort. It was a very rough landing for him after being pulled out of the mountains."

Gibson's father lost his job when Gibson was in the fourth grade and moved the family to Cleveland. The family was very poor and Gibson struck out on his own when he was 13.

He got a job with General Motors but an injury forced his early retirement. He came home to the mountains in 1986.

"When he came home in 1986 the mining had already started on Kayford," Hendrix said. "Larry made up his mind right then when he came back and saw what was happening with the mountains that always comforted him as a child that he had to do something. That's when his activism started."

Victoria said her father faced a lot of backfire from the community because of his activism. He was shot at, run off the road by coal trucks and had effigies of him burned.

She also said he faced threatening phone calls and was beaten up more than once but continued his work.

Those claims could not immediately be verified.

"The thing with my dad, he believed in the people," Victoria said. "He believed everybody was supposed to be treated fair. He wasn't out to take anything from anybody."

Hendrix said Gibson was never against coal miners and was not against mining.

"He was against mountaintop removal," she said. "The coal companies would misrepresent things to their employees and get things stirred up, but it was always about mountaintop removal. He wasn't against deep mining."

Gibson became involved in the movement in the mid-1980s, when mining activity began disrupting his family home on Kayford Mountain.

"My mother gave me birth, but this land gave me life. Growing up here was an adventure every day. I played with my pet bobcat, my fox, my hawk. All of these things, the good Lord provided on this land," Gibson told EarthJustice, a nonprofit law firm that specializes in natural resource conservation.

"But just a stone's throw away, on that mountaintop removal mining site, you couldn't find anything alive if you wanted to. It's bare rock, uninhabitable."

He got some 50-acres of land at the top of Kayford Mountain put into a land trust, meaning it was protected and could never be sold. The land holds about 20 cabins and is where the Mountain Keeper Music Festival has been held for the last 26 years.

He was president of the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation and lifetime member of the Sierra Club. He also was a board member for the Ohio Valley Environmental Commission.

He was named one of CNN's "Heroes" in 2007, testified before the United Nations, traveled to Ecuador to speak to families affected by mining, and spoke to thousands of community, church and university groups nationwide.

In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by two sons, Larry Jr. and Cameron.

"I think there will be an outcry in the movement," Victoria said, regarding her father's death. "What do we do now? My father was a leader. The ones who were fearful, he gave courage and the ones with courage he built up and gave them strength.

"He believed in the people. He said everybody deserved a chance to prove who they are and to leave a legacy to be proud of. I think he left an irreplaceable one."

Funeral plans were incomplete Sunday evening.

Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at ashley.craig@dailymail.com or 304-348-4850.

 


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