The Appalachian Mountains, stretching from Canada to Alabama along eastern North America, contains some of the most important forest ecosystems in North America. Central Appalachia, including West Virginia, is home to the most diverse hardwood forests in the region with oak, buckeye, birch, maple, beech, ash and dogwood species. Central Appalachia’s headwater rivers and streams, historically some of the purest water on the continent, are the water source for millions of people.
Central Appalachia also contains coal, a critical fossil fuel resource. The coal industry has long been the backbone of the region’s economy and the main employer of generations of working-class families living in the Appalachian coalfields. In recent decades, mountaintop removal coal mining has become common in Central Appalachia. Different from traditional underground coal mining, mountaintop removal is highly mechanized and thus employs fewer workers. Companies first clear-cut a mountaintop and then blast an average of 800 feet off the top of the mountain in order to access coal seams that lie beneath. Rubble from the blasted mountains, often containing toxic debris, is dumped into adjacent valleys to form “valley fills.”
Without foliage and natural layers of soil, the land is rendered unable to retain water. As a result, flooding of communities below valley fills has become a severe and increasingly frequent problem. In December 2008, the Bush Administration approved a final rule that made it easier for coal companies to dump rock and other mine waste from mountaintop removal mining operations into nearby streams and valleys. Weakening what is known as the federal stream buffer rule, the rule is one of the most controversial environmental regulation changes that came out of the Bush Administration. By 2009, mountaintop removal coal mining in Central Appalachia had destroyed an estimated 470 mountains and had buried or polluted 2,000 miles of rivers and streams.
Maria Gunnoe was born and raised at the mouth of a narrow hollow in Boone County, West Virginia, now one of the most active mountaintop removal regions in the United States. Her family’s roots in the region date back to the early 1800s, when her ancestors escaped the forced removal of their Cherokee peoples from Georgia by walking along streams to the headwaters, settling safely in the fertile hollows of Central Appalachia. She comes from a long line of coal miners, including her Cherokee grandfather, who in the 1950s purchased the land where her home stands today.
Throughout much of rural Appalachia, a unique culture of survival and living off of the land has thrived for centuries. Gunnoe’s family instilled in her a deep connection to the forest and streams, where her community hunts, fishes, and gathers foods and medicinal plants throughout the seasons. This traditional rural culture is threatened by the invasive mining practices that dominate the region.
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 more than 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 were contaminated, forcing her family to use bottled water for cooking and drinking.
In 2004, Gunnoe, a medical technician by training and former waitress, began volunteering with many local advocacy organizations and then working for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) to educate her neighbors about the environmental dangers of mountaintop removal. She organized monthly Boone County meetings, and soon provided community trainings on how to read mining permits, write letters to the editor, interface with the media, and protest using nonviolent methods. Gunnoe also created neighborhood groups to monitor coal companies for illegal behavior and to report toxic spills. She has encouraged other residents to speak at hearings about their concerns over mountaintop removal.
In March 2007, OVEC and partner groups won a federal lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers that repealed mountaintop removal valley fill permits in southern West Virginia granted without adequate environmental consideration, and banned issuance of new permits. In defiance of the federal judge’s orders, the Corps granted permits to Jupiter Holdings to construct two new valley fills above Gunnoe’s community at its Boone County mine. OVEC challenged the permits in federal court, and a hearing was scheduled for September 2007. Days before the hearing, Gunnoe organized a media training for 20 local residents, some of whom were scheduled to testify with her. However, at the community hall, more than 60 coal miners showed up and harassed Gunnoe and her neighbors, stopping the meeting and intimidating the group.
After the incident at the community hall, Gunnoe’s neighbors decided not to testify in the hearing challenging Jupiter Holdings’ permits. Gunnoe was the sole community resident to do so. In October 2007, federal district court Judge Robert Chambers ruled in favor of Gunnoe and OVEC and issued an injunction, ordering Jupiter Holdings to halt the construction of any new valley fills at its Boone County mine.
Gunnoe and a coalition of regional groups went on to advocate for the passage of the federal Clean Water Protection Act, and the reinstatement of the buffer zone rule that would strengthen environmental laws regulating mountaintop removal. She continues to work with Appalachian groups to promote viable renewable energy opportunities for the region.
Observers confirm that mine managers point to Gunnoe as an enemy of mine workers and their jobs, and have encouraged acts of harassment. Gunnoe has received numerous verbal threats on her life, and her children are frequently harassed at school. Gunnoe’s neighbors overheard people planning an arson attack on her home. Her daughter’s dog was shot dead, and “wanted” posters of Gunnoe have appeared in local convenience stores. Gunnoe has taken serious measures to protect both her family and property.
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