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.