Call to Action Tour 2012; Act on ACHE

Rock Creek, WV — When the University of Michigan announced in April, 2012, that Maria Gunnoe, from Bob White, West Virginia, would be the 22nd recipient of the University of Michigan Wallenberg Medal, I made plans to attend the ceremony and public lecture she would deliver in Ann Arbor, MI.


Maria Gunnoe and Antrim Caskey after Gunnoe delivered the 22nd University of Michigan Wallenberg lecture in Ann Arbor, October
23, 2012.

Maria Gunnoe has become one of the most powerful and effective voices in defense of the land and people of Appalachia.  I first met Maria in New York City in May, 2005; she told me how Patriot Coal’s 1200-acre mountaintop removal site, in her backyard since 2000, had turned her life upside down.  Three days later, I was at Maria Gunnoe’s home-place in Bob White, WV, to witness for myself. 

Maria opened my eyes to the human and environmental costs of coal, particularly mountaintop removal coal mining.

Despite growing national awareness, he atrocities of mountaintop removal coal mining continues, 24/7.  But over the past several years, a growing body of scientific studies has emerged, directly correlating severe human health costs to breathing the poisonous dust that comes off these sites.

Bo Webb and his neighbors have built a campaign around these health studies, more than twenty now that have been published in peerreviewed journals. These studies tell us that a non-smoking pregnant woman who lives near a mountaintop removal site is 180% more likely to bear a baby with birth defects compared to a woman who smokes cigarettes during her pregnancy, but does not live underneath a mountaintop removal site.

Bo Webb and a small team have used the studies to educate our lawmakers over the past years. As a result, we have a bill in Congress that will end all new mountaintop removal coal mining, the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (ACHE), HR 5959. The ACHE team runs a bare-bones citizen lobbying campaign out of their Washington, DC-based office.  Currently the ACHE Act has 27 sponsors, all Democrats.

“We want to approach the Republican side now. What better bill than the ACHE Act that the two sides can work together on. To show the American people. It saves lives and will save money,” said Bo Webb from his home in West Virginia.  The ACHE team is planning a blitz on Washington, DC next week.

The first stop on our tour was Minneapolis, MN, where my dear friends Ariel and Jeff now reside with their two daughters. 

We spoke to Ariel’s co-workers at Caldrea, as part of their monthly in-house education series,”Lunch and Learn.”   We introduced them to Appalachian people directly affected by mountaintop removal coal mining — Maria, Ed, Judy, Larry, Bo and the places in West Virginia — Marsh Fork, Kayford, Rock Creek, and Bob White where they lived.  Afterwards, almost everyone took a copy of Dragline Some spoke up during the talk and described how surface mining has marred their local landscapes.  We told them about the ACHE Act when they asked, “What can we do?”

Our next stop: Madison, WI, where my godfather Doug Moore is the current interim minister at the First Congregational Church, an historically progressive congregation, knew hardly anything about mountaintop removal coal mining.

On Friday, October 19, the church hosted a potluck dinner, a screening of The Last Mountain, and a Q&A afterwards. At Sunday’s service, we brought our message and the cries for help from West Virginia into the church. 

I was invited to deliver a homilyDoug’s sermon spoke of the actions around good stewardship to the land. 

The most poignant part of the service was A Time With Children, when the children gather on the small steps below the alter.  We decided to tell them the story of Marsh Fork Elementary because these were children of the same age. As we sat just a few feet from their inquiring eyes, their beautiful faces, I could not speak — staring into the future that lay before us.  Fortunately, Doug took over, he told the story of the children of Marsh Fork Elementary. 

Our next stop was Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Maria Gunnoe would deliver the 22nd University of Michigan Wallenberg Medal lecture.  This event was the reason we were on tour, openly advocating for the end of mountaintop removal coal mining through passage of the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act ( HR 5959).  

After a welcome cocktail reception and dinner, we all sat in Rackham Hall, the favorite building of the whole campus I was told, and listened to the extraordinary introduction and story of Raoul Wallenberg, followed by Maria Gunnoe’s slide lecture, followed by questions from the audience of the University of Michigan community.  Many students in the audience had been shown the powerful documentary, The Last Mountain, in a number of different classes in the days leading up to Maria’s visit. Some of them were fired up; propelled toward action by Maria’s testimony

On the train to Washington, DC the day afterwards, Maria told me how over the six days she’d spent at University of Michigan, she had spoken to almost twenty different groups of students.  She told me that she was using Dragline as a tool to help educate and activate the students and she told me how she gave them the latest tool that could end the atrocities of mountaintop removal coal mining, she told them all about the Appalachian Community Health Emergency (ACHE) ACT

Most people I met in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan had not heard about the human health impact of mountaintop removal coal mining, but they were outraged and concerned  to learn that citizens were breathing the dust that contains diesel fuel, ammonium nitrate, silica dust and coal dust.  And that 5.5 million pounds of explosives are used every day in mountaintop removal coal mining — forcing citizens to breathe this poison every day.

We welcome our new friends of Appalachia Watch. Please join us in our fight. Visit the ACHE Team today: learn more, sign the petition, and ask your Congressperson to support the ACHE Act.

Our last stop was Washington, DC to give a  TEDxtalk on October 27 as part of TEDx MidAtlantic 2012. The video podcast of my TEDx talk will be available soon. 



Thank you as always for your interest and your support !


Photo Essay: Kayford Mountain Lock Down

8 Activists Arrested at Kayford Mountain Lock Down
Antrim Caskey

Kayford, WV — Eight activists with a coalition of groups including Mountain Justice and Climate Ground Zero walked on to the Patriot Coal mountaintop removal coal operation on Larry Gibson’s Kayford mountain in the early morning hours of March 23, 2009. Six of the protestors locked themselves, in groups of three, to a piece of massive earth moving equipment–referred to as a Yuke–with tires 24′ tall and hung a banner reading “Never Again” on the machine. The activists locked down for five hours. Ten officers from three different state and county authorities responded to the protest on Kayford, the largest number of people to be arrested during this sustained campaign of non violent civil disobedience that began in February, 2009.

The eight activists arrested include Kim Kirkbride, Ash-Lee Henderson, Tanya Turner, Jared Story, Willie Dodson, Will Wickham, Mathew Louis-Rosenberg, and Glenn Collins.

The activists were arrested and taken to Boone County seat at Madison, were processed and released on their own recognizances.

Kayford Mountain Action, May 23, 2009 - Images by antrim caskey

GUNNOE WINS GOLDMAN FOR WEST VIRGINIA Maria Gunnoe Wins Goldman Environmental Prize Second Appalachian Activist to win prestigious prize– Bonds and Gunnoe both radicalized to action in southern West Virginia by atrocities of mountaintop removal coal mining.


Maria Gunnoe, of Bob White, WV, wins the Goldman Environmental Prize today.
Maria Gunnoe, of Bob White, WV, wins the Goldman Environmental Prize today. photograph (c) antrim caskey, 2009

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