U.S. Activist Battles West Virginia Coal Industry

Maria GunnoeSix relatively unknown grassroots activists from around the globe receive a moment in the spotlight when the Goldman Environmental Prize announces its list of annual recipients. The prize, now in its 20th year, is considered the Nobel Prize for the environment. Past recipients include Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, former Brazilian environment minister Marina Silva, and Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was killed seven months after his recognition.

The Worldwatch Institute is honoring this year's prize winners with a series of profiles based on personal interviews. Click here for additional profiles.

Maria Gunnoe raises her children in a small town in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. Her grandfather toiled for 32 years in the coal mines to buy the property where she lives. She helped build the house that her son and daughter now call home.

Five years ago, a flood unlike anything her ancestors experienced nearly wiped Gunnoe's home off the map. A spring rain turned the docile Big Branch Creek that transects her yard into a barrage of black water. The flood ripped Gunnoe's Rottweiler from his collar and carried him downstream. Her family stayed indoors, praying the house would withstand the current.

"There is nothing more intimidating than a 60-foot-wide, 20-foot-tall wall of water coming at you," said Gunnoe, whose property has flooded seven times in the past nine years. She blames the 486 hectare (1,200-acre) mountaintop removal mine that has been leveling the ridge above her home.

Gunnoe, who was honored last month with the 2009 Goldman Environment Prize for North America, has become one of the most fearless opponents of mountaintop removal in her state. Her campaign against the powerful coal industry has helped attract international attention to the damaging mining practice.

During mountaintop removal, miners fill the ridge with explosives and blast the earth, exposing coal seams deemed unworthy of a traditional sub-surface mine. Bulldozers push the rubble into adjacent depressions. During rains, the infilled valleys can accelerate storm runoff, leading floodwaters toward homes such as Gunnoe's.

The mine sites often use holding ponds to store the runoff from washing the coal - water that contains high concentrations of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, and selenium. Dams are built to withstand heavy rains, but sometimes the structures fail.

"The people of Appalachia are being sacrificed for energy in this country," said Gunnoe, a grassroots organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC). "The work I do with fighting mountaintop removal coal mining was inspired because I am a mother. I do not and will never support any aspect of the coal industry, simply because I've seen it kill people I care about."

Gunnoe, who worked as a medical technician and waitress before turning her attention to West Virginia's coal industry, joined OVEC in 2004 after polluted floodwaters contaminated her property and drinking water. She trained her community on how to read mining permits, write letters to local newspapers, and protest using nonviolent methods.

OVEC sued the Army Corps of Engineers in 2007 to stop any new mining at a mountaintop removal site near Gunnoe's home town of Bob White. Days before the hearing, Gunnoe gathered 20 local residents who were scheduled to join her in testifying against the mine site. But more than 60 coal miners also showed up at the community hall to harass the protestors to stay silent.

The day of the testimony, more than 100 people packed the courtroom, with a divided gallery split between miners and environmentalists. Among the community witnesses, Gunnoe was the only resident willing to challenge the industry directly.

Her testimony helped sway U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers to rule in the coalition's favor. "Money can be earned, lost, and earned again," Chambers wrote. "But a valley once filled is gone forever."

The mining company involved in the lawsuit released a notice stating that the ruling could result in job losses for at least 39 miners at the site and another 180 at a related underground mine. Soon, Gunnoe found her face across her community on "wanted" posters labeled "Job Hater." A neighborhood store started collecting signatures for a petition against Gunnoe. Her daughter's dog was shot dead. Friends heard rumors that Gunnoe too would be shot, and that her home would be burned with her children inside.

"It created a sense of fear, especially when we caught people standing in my yard at 2:30 in the morning, 15 feet from my home," she said. "There were times when I literally stayed up all night long so my children would sleep."

But Gunnoe has remained steadfast. She continues to lobby for an end to mountaintop removal mining, and she refuses to move from her home. "That's my birthright and I'm not going to walk away from it," she said. "If they can shut me up, then they can continue to do this into my children's lifetime. I won't allow that."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

This article is a product of Eye on Earth, Worldwatch Institute's online news service. For permission to reprint Eye on Earth content, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org.

Full disclosure: The Worldwatch Institute was among the organizations to nominate Ms. Gunnoe.