A billboard on roadside near Charleston, West Virginia reads: Yes, Coal. Clean Carbon Neutral Coal. But in the yard of a petite 41 year old woman you can see a sign that says: Yes, Wind.
For 12 years, West Virginian Maria Gunnoe has been waging her own battle to end mountain removal, “a process by which the tops of mountains are blasted off so miners can get at seams of coal” that cannot be reached through underground mining. In this process, the coal companies dump tons of rock and vegetation into valleys near by, which often destroy streams, animal and water habitats and create violations of the Clean Water Act.
“More than 500 peaks across Appalachia have been seared off so far.” The companies claim reclamation to the land, replanting indigenous trees which seldom root and usually die off, leaving what was once a majestic line of mountain a mere hill of green grasses and undergrowth as a result of their “fix the damage” efforts (my words here).
Maria Gunnoe, a granddaughter of a Cherokee, is a brave soul, one of the few residents of Boone County, West Virginia who refuse to give up despite the ravaged land literally in her back yard. Her activism and outspokenness awarded her the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize. All for not keeping silent; for not shutting up. And this despite death threats, sand in the gas tank of her truck, the deaths of family pets, and strange gun shots behind her house right before she was to testify before a court. The threats come from local mine workers, whose only form of income is the work done on the mountains in the area.”I’d like to think they were better shots if they meant to hit me,” she says wryly. “They’re trying to scare me.” Still, for a few years she wore a bullet proof vest when she ventured outside. I cannot imagine.
Her activism started years before this with a long-smoldering underground mine fire that came to the surface near her home town of Bob White. She joined OVEC, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. She learned more. When Mountain top mining came to Bob White in 2000, she set out to learn what it was all about. The rumble of explosions on the mountain behind her house created layers of gray dust which coated everything in her house and caused nose bleeds. Then her crystal clear water started to corrode the faucets and had “this foul smell.” After the familiar mountain peak disappeared, raging flood waters gouged her land, creating a 70 wide trench across her property and washing out two bridges that let to her home. “We had to hike in for seven years,” she recounts. Still, none of this was blamed on the mining but officials said that extreme rainfall was the cause.
This further fueled her activism as she continued to badger regulatory agencies to enforce inspections, recheck dumping permits. The Obama administration has promised to review changes the Bush administration made to the Clean Water Act–changes that allowed coal companies to dump mine debris into streams. Valley fill permits are no longer being rubber-stamped by the Army Corps of Engineers and EPA.
Meanwhile, Maria Gunnoe gets in her Jeep and keeps patrol of her mountains. Despite a now camouflage colored house and a chain link fence around her yard, she stays on. Her first grandchild is due soon, and her son, who is in the Navy and will be on duty, is building a new home for his family on the land his mother refuses to abandon. Despite the threats, she’s taught her children to stand up for what is right, to stand up for what you believe in, to take on the “big” companies, and to not let the bastards drag you down.
For Gunnoe, silence is certainly not an option.
Read Maria Gunnoe’s fascinating story online at More.com or pick up a hard copy of the article in More magazine, April 2010 on store shelves now. Maria Gunnoe’s Coal Country Crusade by Tamara Jones. All italic quotes above are from this source.