The EPA, he said, just wants to collect fines.
"But when they do that, the miners lose," Gibson said. "I'm sick of seeing the little guy pay."
During the permitting dispute in 2010, companies crammed miners onto buses and packed public hearings, forging a formidable alliance of management and labor that drowned out the environmentalists.
"They have completely turned the men on their heels," said Nick Mullins, a 33-year-old former miner from Clintwood, Va., who blogs about coal country as The Thoughtful Coal Miner.
"They're paying them better, and they've managed to really win the hearts and minds," he said. Younger miners "didn't see how bad the coal companies were to the men before them. . . . They don't know their own history.
"The industry has done this really, really good propaganda," he said. "It's really easy to buy into it, especially when you only hear one side of the story and you're shutting out the other side."
West Virginia University history professor Ken Fones-Wolf said coal companies also have tapped into a proud heritage, heading off any potential opposition miners might have by reminding them they are valuable family providers.
"They feel that being against coal somehow denigrates all the sacrifices that generations of their families have made to the development of this nation."
So they fight for their way of life.
'The EPA is a patsy in the war on coal'
War sells because fear sells.
It's an emotionally charged metaphor that has taken over much of political discourse in America, said Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of "The Argument Culture."
There have been wars on drugs, wars on women, wars on the middle class. Why not a war on coal?
For people who want to govern, she said, war is about "destroying the opposition so they can get the power back." For media, it's about grabbing the attention of an easily distracted public. The more polarizing the voices, the more entertaining the story.
But such language, she said, contributes nothing to genuine understanding.
Rather, "it has this effect of making people angry, defensive and fearful," Tannen said. "It has a corrosive effect on the human spirit."
Two years ago, the phrase had only begun to creep into a conversation. Today, it's an inescapable, daily drumbeat, dominating not only conversation but campaign ads and newscasts.
"The idea of taking land in a moving front, there's something there," said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
"Yes, it's part of a PR campaign," he acknowledged, "but people are pretty jaded and pretty quick to recognize false arguments. The idea that we somehow hoodwinked people in the coalfields is a bit of a stretch.
"It's not just some PR machination," Bissett said. "It is a real, real concern."
In Kentucky, more than 55,000 people now drive vehicles with "Friends of Coal" license plates, a slogan that Bissett helped launch to get people emotionally invested. Instead of seeing the industry as faceless men in suits, they see the pickups next to them at the supermarket parking lot, the tags instantly identifying the like-minded.
So, too, with the "war on coal."
Today, you're either friend or foe. Meaningful discussions and middle ground have vanished.
In one of his last major speeches, in 2009, the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd warned that change was upon coal country. He chastised the industry for "scapegoating and stoking fear," calling it counterproductive.
"To be part of any solution," he said, "one must first acknowledge the problem."
The greatest threats to coal, Byrd warned, come not from regulations "but rather from rigid mindsets, depleting reserves and the declining demand."
Byrd was 91 at the time and was revered in his home state of West Virginia. The speech was largely ignored.
Fast-forward three years, though, to another Democrat who's dedicated his political career to the Mountain State.
When Sen. Jay Rockefeller gave a remarkably similar speech in June, deriding the industry for what he said were divisive, fear-mongering tactics, the state's Young Republicans said he'd "gone from out of touch to dangerous."
They even invoked the language of terrorism, suggesting he's "an anti-Mountain State sleeper cell that has lain dormant for 40 years."
Allen Johnson of Christians for the Mountains -- a group that opposes mountaintop removal mining and advocates living "compatibly and sustainably" with the environment -- sees such verbal smackdowns as nothing less than a threat to democracy.
"If any politician dares step over the coal line . . . you will get hammered back into place, and quickly," said Johnson, of Frost, Pocahontas County. "You just metaphorically crack knuckles and knee caps."
Johnson, 64, once worked the coke ovens for U.S. Steel. He worked for a railroad that moved coal and a power plant that burned it. He wants people to have good livelihoods. He also wants balance, and a government that prevents uncontrolled pollution of earth, air and water.
"The EPA," he said, "is a patsy in the war on coal."
'Obama said, I will bankrupt you, and he is'
For the past 11 years, Kevin Spears has been a sought-after commodity -- a young, healthy Caterpillar mechanic with nine mining job certifications and a willingness to work 60-75 hours a week.
However, he lost his job in April when his employer ran out of money to finish reclaiming a strip mine site.
Spears has since applied for 20 positions, with no luck. He used to make $80,000 to $110,000 a year, depending on overtime. With only a high school education, he earned more than a friend with a doctorate in psychology.
Today, he supports his girlfriend and three children on $1,660 a month in unemployment compensation.
"You give up everything. You cut down to the bare essentials -- food, water, power," said the 32-year-old from Pikeville, Ky.
Girlfriend LeAndra Conley juggles bills, deciding each week which to pay and which to postpone.
"This whole thing is crushing us," said Conley, who's going through a divorce and won't move her daughters away from their father to Texas, where Spears was offered a $35-an-hour job.
"It's not something you think is ever going to happen," she said. "The coal was put here for us to use, and you can't survive without it.
"There's nothing else here, unless you want to work for a phone marketing company -- and they only stay until their tax breaks expire, and then they pull out, too."
Mining supported three generations before her, and Conley is certain there's enough coal underground to support three more.
"But Obama said, I will bankrupt you," she said, "and he is."
The couple still believes life in the coalfields can go back to the way it was. Maybe not overnight, but in time.
As leaves change and a chill settles over the mountains, they pray for two things -- a new president and a cold winter that forces people to crank up their furnaces.
"If something doesn't change for this area soon," Spears said, "it's either going to be migration or starvation."