Junior Walk: My Mountain Story
Junior Walk’s path to activism was not an easy one. From living with contaminated water in his own home as a child, to being kicked out of the house for speaking out against the coal company, and being threatened by relatives and neighbors, Junior has had to muster courage at every step along the way. His courage, and his clear voice calling for change, has been widely recognized. Today he works with Coal River Mountain Watch, Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, and RAMPS to end mountaintop removal mining, and travels the country with the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation educating people about the long-term environmental, health and community degradation caused by coal mining. He was a keynote speaker at the 2011 PowerShift conference in Washington, DC, and recipient of the prestigious Brower Youth Awards in 2011. The late renowned environmentalist and climber David Brower, the namesake of the award that honored Junior, famously said, "Tough mountains build bold leaders." Junior Walk is one of the many courageous and bold leaders whom the Appalachian Mountains have built.
This is Junior's story:
My name is Junior Walk. I am 21 years old and I was born and raised right where the Marsh Fork meets the Clear Fork to create the Big Coal River in West Virginia.
When I was a little kid, you could walk through Whitesville, West Virginia, and there were two movie theaters, a bowling alley and a bar on every corner. There were people here. But from the 1980s until today, there’s been a mass exodus and die off in West Virginia, and Whitesville has been one of the hardest areas hit.
The one thing that has changed in this area: strip mining, or mountaintop removal coal mining. Once it started, everybody lost their jobs, moved away, or became sick. Strip mining, or mountaintop removal mining, is the reason that everybody’s gone.
Mountaintop removal mining is an issue that’s close to my heart because I’ve had to deal with the health impacts of it myself. When they started pumping the liquid coal waste, or "slurry" or "sludge," into the abandoned coal mines above my home when I was a little child, my family’s water soon turned blood-red and smelled like sulfur. If you ran a bath, you had to step out of the room for a minute or so before you got in. Of course we didn’t drink it, but we still had to shower in it, wash our dishes and clothes in it, and sometimes cook with it. We thought if we boiled it, that it’d be alright because it stopped smelling. But it turns out that ain’t the case.
This is how it happens: The coal companies wash the coal with chemicals to remove impurities and inflammables. The result is a wastewater byproduct called "slurry." It is actually about four times heavier than water. Then they put this slurry either in these massive impoundments, giant dams made of earth, or they pump them into old abandoned underground coal mines. In an area where most of the people are on well water, that’s a recipe for disaster.
It wasn’t until I was a lot older that I understood this. I thought our water went bad because that’s what water does. I’d seen all our neighbors’ water go bad, and I thought, Well, it’s our turn now; that’s the way life works.
People around here know about the water – it’s hard to miss. But a lot of them worked for the coal company, and they knew if they opened their mouths, they’d get fired and wouldn’t be able to take care of their families.
I myself worked for the coal industry. First I went to work for Massey Energy (now Alpha Natural Resources) at a coal preparation plant, where my dad works still. Some days they’d have me cutting the grass, and some days they’d have me in the basement of the plant wading waist-deep in coal slurry, with no goggles, no respirator, nothing like that. I knew if I kept working there, I was going to die early. So I quit that job, found some other work here and there, flippin’ burgers, whatever I could do.
Then I got a job as a security guard on a mountaintop removal mine. I always thought that mountaintop removal mining was bad, but I never actually saw mountaintop removal mining before that job.
When I walked up on that ridge the first day, it took my breath away. Working as a security guard, I had to sit there for 12 hours a day and see them tearing down that mountain. I just felt like the most miserable human being you could ever imagine, making money off of that. That money was coming out of that mountain, and I knew the suffering of those people that lived down below that mountain. I knew how it was, because I went through it myself. I knew I had to do something. That’s when I decided to stop in at the Coal River Mountain Watch office and talk to Judy Bonds, who I’d known since I was little kid. It wasn’t long before Judy offered me a job as an office manager at Coal River Mountain Watch.
I had this decision in front of me. I could keep doing what I was doing, keep my head down, keep the respect of my family and my community, and not have to look over my shoulder every time I left the house. Or I could do what I knew was right. It wasn’t much of a choice, to be honest. I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I just sat on my hands, knowing that my friends and family were being poisoned, so I started to speak out against mountaintop removal mining.
I won’t forget the day I decided to work at Coal River Mountain Watch. I told my parents that I took the job. My dad got really upset. He didn’t want to, but he knew he was going to have to kick me out of the house, or get fired.
We sat there and talked about it for a couple hours, argued about it, yelled about it, and finally came down to it. The next morning I packed up my things and left.
As I spoke out more, a lot of my extended family stopped talking to me. Despite all of that, the hardest part of this fight is not having enough time. Every single day, they’re blasting the mountains and contaminating the water. And every day more people are getting cancer and dying. There’s a 7-billion-gallon coal slurry dam above my house that could collapse at any moment, setting loose a 40-foot-wall of sludge that could wipe me out. It’s this sense of urgency that most people don’t understand.
Whenever I see them tearing down these mountains, I just feel this pit in the bottom of my stomach. You know that was somebody’s home or special spot. I feel disgusted, and I feel compelled to stand up and do something about it.
People ask me why I don’t just leave this area. I’ve always said that I’d just as soon live in a shack on the Coal River than in a mansion on Wall Street. The people here are the kindest, most hardworking people you’ll ever meet. They’d give you the shirt off their back if they ever thought you needed it. And this place here just has this air about it – it’s beautiful. You can’t understand unless you’ve been here. Take a drive up a hollow, and you’re surrounded by this canopy of trees and mountain creeks. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s worth fighting for.