Bob White, West Virginia — Maria Gunnoe, renowned Appalachian activist, has received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize today, awarded each year to grassroots activists working on community environmental issues from each of the world’s six inhabited continental regions.
Gunnoe has spent the last seven years of her life fighting mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. Gunnoe’s activism began when her family home-place in Bob White, southern West Virginia, was flooded in 2003.
During an interview in May, 2005, Gunnoe described the June, 2003 flood, the largest of seven floods the Gunnoes endured between the years 2000-2005, to this reporter,
“There was a 30 foot wall of water washed down from this mine site and destroyed not only our property but our lives. The water took a swath 20 feet deep and 67 feet wide right through the middle of everything we owned. It filled my barn full of rock and debris so much that we can’t even open the doors. It washed through the barn and continued down to where our family dog was tied and ripped him right out of his collar as we watched helplessly. Then it took out our only access bridge blocking in the equipment we needed to make our living. After the water took out the bridge, it then washed out the septic system, contaminated our ground water, and washed away about 5 acres of our property including our orchard. We were trapped in with no way out and the emergency services could only get within yelling distance. We came back to the house and went inside. The water was now about 20 feet from the foundation of our home and it wasn’t stopping. I dropped to my knees and begged for God to stop this water. ‘Please God, don’t let this water take our house and our lives, it’s already taken our home.’ ”
“It was like a ragin’ river coming out of there. We sat here all night long listening to trees and tin, you could hear it but you couldn’t see it. It was pitch black. It was an eerie sound. I can’t explain it. You’d have to have been here to understand. you could hear it all night long…There was water washing underneath the concrete floor in the garage. The garage was poppin’ and crackin’… What we’d done through the evening, We got the kids dressed. Plastic bags in their pockets. Coats. Hats…”
“We were haulin’ all that stuff outta the garage. It was five am, I fell asleep sitting up on the couch. Daylight came. I woke up. I looked up and I lost it.”
“I went straight up to the mining company. I told that lady guard that I wanted to talk to Bob Cline now.
She said to me, ‘I’ll give ’em the message but they are busy men.’ “
“That made me even angrier.”
Fifteen minutes after Maria got home, Bob Cline, the chief mining engineer from Patriot coal, which operated the 2200-acre mountaintop removal site behind her home arrived at her house.
The first thing Cline said to Maria was, “you know we are not liable for this. This is an act of God.”
Soon after the horrendous 2003 flood, Gunnoe met face to face with Joe Manchin, III, who was campaigning for Governor at the time. Maria described the encounter this way,
“Joe Manchin looked me and my daughter in the face and said, ‘We’ll see if we can get you some help up there.’ Three days later someone calls promising help, but we need you to sign a waiver to release the coal company from all liability,” Gunnoe recalled.
Gunnoe’s resolve to stand up for her rights only intensified in the face of such callousness — it fueled her fight for justice. Gunnoe’s life has been “turned upside down” by what the coal operators above her were doing to the land, all in the quest for the dirties fossil fuel, coal. Patriot Coal decapitated Big Island mountain–removing the top 400 feet, this is mountaintop removal– and buried Big Branch creek, an Appalachian headwater stream that meandered through the Gunnoe home-place, providing fresh mountain water to drink and play in. Today, Big Branch creek is a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) stream, or in layperson’s terms, “a pollution spillway.”
Thousands of miles of these vital headwater streams have been buried by valley fills, giant plugs of crushed mountaintops that are dumped into Appalachian valleys after the mountaintops are blown up with explosives, which according to Dr. Benjamin Stout, a biologist at Wheeling Jesuit University, has put the drinking water source for the southeastern United States at risk.
Virtual Flyover of Maria Gunnoe’s home produced by Benji Burrell and ilovemountains.org