One woman takes on King Coal. And wins.

Back in my home state of Kentucky, there is perhaps no greater tragedy than mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR). This is a method of mining where mountains are literally blown up and leveled, with the remaining debris dumped into the valleys. This creates not only horrific wastelands in its wake, but pollutes valley streams and the water supply all who live around it. MTR in Appalachia has destroyed an estimated 470 mountains and has buried or polluted 2,000 miles of waterways. But coal companies do this in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia because it is cheaper and requires less labor.

Why is this allowed to happen? Because in WV, and to a large extent in KY, the coal industry owns the state government. To cite just one of many examples in KY, the chairman of the House environmental committee is a staunch global warming denier who every year blocks a hearing or a vote on the bill seeking to end MTR practices. For the past 100 years, “King Coal” has gotten exactly whatever policy it wanted. However, the benefits for these communities have not “trickled down” to the citizens, as this region of Appalachia remains one of the poorest, least healthy, and least happy regions in the entire country.

Many grassroots activists have fought against MTR in this region, but they are at a severe disadvantage. Not only from their state government, but from coal company goons who threaten and intimidate anyone who stands in their way.

But in a small WV town, one woman fought the coal industry and won. Meet Maria Gunnoe:

In 2000, a 1,200-acre mountaintop removal mine began on the ridge above Gunnoe’s home. Today, her house sits directly below a 10-story valley fill that contains two toxic ponds of mine waste comprised of run-off from the mine. Since the mine became operational, Gunnoe’s property has flooded seven times. Before mining began, Gunnoe’s property was never prone to such flooding. In a 2004 flood, much of Gunnoe’s ancestral home was destroyed and her yard was covered in toxic coal sludge. The coal company told her the damage was an “act of God.” As a result of mine waste, her well and ground water have been contaminated, forcing her family to use bottled water for cooking and drinking.

That’s when Gunnoe sprung into action, organizing people in her community with the help of the Ohio Valley Environmental Committee. Though Gunnoe and OVEC won a court ruling against MTR permits in southern WV, the Army Corps of Engineers defied this ruling and still granted valley fill permits. When Gunnoe organized a meeting for fellow residents who were scheduled to testify with her in the coming trial, 60 coal company goons descended on them, breaking up the meeting and threatening them with violence if they kept rocking the boat. Gunnoe and her family became the constant targets of death threats.

(to give you an example of what “coal company goons” look like, check out this video of Massey Coal Company thugs breaking up small picnic of local environmentalists in Kentucky this past 4th of July. These are frighteningly ignorant and violent people)

Because of the threats to their safety, Gunnoe’s neighbors refused to testify, leaving Gunnoe as the only witness from her community willing to do so. Nevertheless, she won the case and Jupiter Holdings was barred from making any new valley fills in her community.

Today, she remains the constant targets of threats against her family, life, and property. These sick thugs even shot her daughter’s dog. But she continues to fight, and isn’t going to let them bully her.

I know that much of Appalachia got a really bad rap during the 2008 election, and much of it deservingly so. But I just wanted to let everybody know that there are truly righteous, amazing and courageous people who live here, who don’t fit into the negative stereotype that people have of this region. And they have one kickass feminist activist named Maria Gunnoe, who everybody should know.

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21 Responses to One woman takes on King Coal. And wins.

  1. Terri says:

    But…but…jobs…cheap electricity…liberals…global cooling…head explode!

    Great piece, especially the final paragraph.

  2. This is a great post. Please tell me that you’ve posted it at DailyKos, too!

  3. The fight continues in Appalachia as people take their stand. There’s always room for more.

    Climate Ground Zero
    Mountain Justice

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  5. The Czech says:

    That’s really weird. I just posted about MTR in West Virginia today too: There Used to Be a Mountain Here. I just traveled there and saw it with mine own eyes.

    I met with Larry Gibbons, whose story is somewhat similar to Gunnoe’s. His family has been on the land for 300 years. There used to be tall mountains all around his home, but now he is surrounded by desolate valleys due to king coal’s voracious MTR mining. He hasn’t won his battle yet, but just like Gunnoe he has been the target of death threats and has even been shot at from people hidden in the woods. They haven’t hit him, yet.

    Read more about Larry at Keeper of the Mountains.

  6. Joe Sonka says:

    There weirdness doesn’t end there, Czech. My username on my KY state blog is Media Czech.

    Long lost twin?

  7. Andrew says:

    Great piece, Joe! The coal thugs video is shocking and scary. Keepers of the Mountain showed amazing restraint by refusing to engage the miners. As Barney Frank would say, a conversation with them would be like trying to argue with a dining room table.

  8. The Czech says:

    I think so! And I just watched the second video and realized it was of a confrontation on Larry’s mountain! He told me all about that incident.

    Let me know how I can view your Kentucky state blog.

    Down with MTR!

  9. Rored5 says:

    I love this post. I see the Appalachian area as many second generation immigrants see their parents’ home countries. My grandparents moved here (Chicago) upon getting married but so much of my actual culture comes from that area. (language, family dynamics and structure)
    It breaks my heart to see so many of my relatives still stranded in a horrible cycle of poverty that has barely changed in the 60 years since my grandfather stopped working the mines (at age 15 when he enlisted in the Army – he also has black lung from it.)
    And, although it didn’t seem possible for the mining to get worse for those living there – it has. Many residents don’t even have their beautiful smokies anymore — and mom and dad don’t have to bring home coal dust anymore – the toxic sludge is in their front yard.

  10. chocolatepie says:

    MATEWAN: PART II. Except hopefully with a happier ending.

  11. j.d. parker says:

    The drunk scabs sure are mouthy. I nociced they care about jobs, that would be theirs not ours. If it wasn’t for the U.M.W. They’d be payed five dollars an hour.Looks like these boys have forgot there raisin. Young men wake up and remember don’t be bought by Blankenship’s lies while He laughs at you in Virginia. wrote by 30 year UNION miner like my Daddy before me. GOD BLESS EVERYONE OF YOU ; This is just MY opinion!!

  12. ks says:

    It’s awful. I grew up in southern WV (here, but a few years after) and lots of my family is still there. Every time I go home it gets worse–more bits of the landscape missing, you can’t drink the water, really bad flooding every spring that almost never used to happen, etc.

    And that load about jobs is just that, a total load of crap. Even with increased strip mining, there aren’t significantly more jobs to go around, and those that are there are hard to get. And with the decline of the UMW, even if you can get one of the precious strip mining jobs, it’s hard to keep it because any kind of complaint to the bosses gets you fired and you’re back working at Wal Mart.

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  14. Rachel says:

    This is a great film about mountaintop removal, and what’s being done to try and fight it:

    Highly recommended… focuses on community efforts to fight this sort of mining..

  15. tinfoil hattie says:

    know that much of Appalachia got a really bad rap during the 2008 election, and much of it deservingly so.

    I’m glad you inserted this caveat. Because we all know that Appalachians are ignorant hicks, but hey, here’s this one cool Appalachian Lady! Who opposes an industry that destroys her life and the lives of millions! So you can totes get behind this! Even though the news showed some idiots from Appalachia during the 2008 election!

    Thank goodness you only like good Appalachians like Gunnoe.

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  17. Genevieve says:

    I’m glad you inserted this caveat. Because we all know that Appalachians are ignorant hicks, but hey, here’s this one cool Appalachian Lady! Who opposes an industry that destroys her life and the lives of millions! So you can totes get behind this! Even though the news showed some idiots from Appalachia during the 2008 election!

    Thank goodness you only like good Appalachians like Gunnoe.

    Yeah, Hattie, I noticed this as well–I’m not an Appalachian myself but in the past couple years I’ve been reading a lot about the region, and the vast majority of what I’ve read, as well as the people I’ve met, have disputed the common stereotype.

    The majority of this post was cool, and I like it whenever I see MTR addressed in a forum which isn’t specifically devoted to Appalachian issues, since a wider audience does need exposure to this if anything’s ever going to change. This part, however, rubbed me the wrong way.

    And if anyone here wants to know more, the novel Strange as This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake is excellent (Ms. Pancake is actually the sister of the woman who made Black Diamonds and one of my heroes); as is the book Something’s Rising by Silas House and Jason Howard and the anthology Missing Mountains. And if everyone’s in the Northeast Ohio area, the documentary Coal Country is coming to Akron on September 12th–tickets are free.

  18. Joe Sonka says:

    Much. Of. That. Deservedly. So. Yes, I stand by that 100%.

    No, I won’t be apologizing for anyone who so casually declares that they won’t ever vote for that n——, nor will I turn my head and pretend these people don’t exist. Racism is an epidemic in Appalachia, and to ignore it is to enable it.

  19. Genevieve says:

    You know, I’m not denying that there is racism in Appalachia. But there is racism everywhere in our country, some people just know to hide it and sweep it under the rug when strangers are around.

    I suppose you could say I am sensitive to this issue because I’ve seen people use the “oh, they’re bigoted” statement to then justify a “who cares about them?” viewpoint, and I do in fact care about them. Considering that you seem to care about ending MTR, I know that you care as well.

    But I do think that the media often grabs onto images of poor rural people as bigoted–they’re essentially powerless, after all, so demonizing them on TV won’t hurt the media people at all–while ignoring similarly bigoted views expressed in wealthy northern and coastal cities and suburbs. My grandmother grew up in Wisconsin, never lived in Appalachia or the south, and currently lives in California, and while she didn’t use the n word she did say that she didn’t want Obama to be president because she didn’t want “little black kids running all over the White House.”

  20. Jix says:

    Let me just say first that I agree with Joe.

    My roots (along with my entire family) are in eastern Kentucky.

    The coal thing: coal has been a dying industry in this area for about 60-70 years, in my estimation. Big Coal alone has kept the mining industry going, turning mountains inside-out looking for more sources of the mineral. The only benefits reaped by citizens are a ravaged landscape and a guaranteed job at the mine.

    The racism thing: if you look at a recent census, the demographics are probably something like 97-98% white, with 2% or less black, Hispanic, or other. It wasn’t always like that–at least by 1948 there were enough black people in the area to have a segregated school (I assume it was either a high school or 6-12). I don’t think this explains the racism that exists now, but if a white person never meets a non-white person, their bigotry probably isn’t going away easily. My graduating class, for example, was all white except for a couple of exchange students from Japan and Colombia. I didn’t know any black people until I went to college.

    The area has its faults, and there is nothing wrong with being honest about that. The people I know do the very best they can against these terrible odds, and for that I am proud to be a part of that culture.

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