Skip to main content

Mountain Heroes: Karen Woodrum

My name is Karen .

I worked as an underground coal miner.
I'll work to stop mountaintop removal mining.

I think if it can happen to my neighbor it can happen to me. It can happen to anybody. And I care about my neighbors. I care about the people who have to live like this. It’s not right that people have to live with bombs going off around their houses.

Photo by Mark Schmerling

 

Karen Woodrum: My Mountain Story

 

Karen Woodrum, a 63-year-old grandmother of three and great-grandmother of two, has spent her years in the mountains of Boone County, West Virginia, in a quiet community. Karen supported her family by working as an underground coal miner for 18 years. A member of the United Mine Workers of America, she is proud of her work as an underground miner and wants to make her message clear: she is not against coal; she is against mountaintop removal coal mining. She has seen mountaintop removal mining destroy neighbors’ homes and properties and has felt it rattle her own bustling household, which is home to her grandchildren and great grandchildren as well. Karen thinks about their safety and their future in the state she loves, and she remembers the moment she knew she needed to stand up against mountaintop removal mining.

"I’m Karen Woodrum, and I was an underground coal miner for 18 years. I started working in the mines in 1976. I went in as a red hat. And a lot of the men would ask me, ‘Why are you here? What are you doing in the coal mines?’ I said, ‘Well my daughter likes to eat and wear clothes, just like yours.’ I said, I just left a job making a dollar an hour and I can’t make it, I can’t raise a daughter on that.

"And I was very proud to be a coal miner, a member of the UMWA. I’m still a member of the UMWA. At the time I started, my daughter was 10 years old. Now, my daughter has three daughters, and they live with me. If it wasn’t for UMWA coal mining, I couldn’t have survived. My family couldn’t have survived.

"I have nothing against underground coal mining. My problem is mountaintop removal coal mining. It destroys people’s homes, it destroys their families. West Virginia needs coal. But we need to do it in a different way than mountaintop removal. There would be more jobs if they would mine it underground, and I think people’s lives would not be disrupted as they are with mountaintop removal going on. And there’s less damage done to the earth.

"The first time I heard mountaintop removal: I was lying in my bed, and I heard a big blast, like a bomb going off, at 4 p.m. I used to write down every time they’d shake me out of my bed; it happened every day for a year. The pictures literally shook off my walls. They were mining all around me, taking the mountains in front of me, behind me. I heard an explosion one day, and I took my camera and went out my back door and took a picture of it. There was black smoke just rolling off the mountain, up in the sky from the mountain. It’s like you’re in a war zone when you live close to mountaintop removal mining sites.

"I realized I needed to take a stand a few years ago. We had a flood, and a valley fill of mountaintop mining debris came down and destroyed my neighbor’s property. I walked over there the next day, me and a friend of mine, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It almost took her house out. She lives across the way, and when we had all that rain it brought the valley fill right down on her property and just destroyed everything. And that’s what’s going to happen to all of us.

"The creeks and streams around here have been filled in with valley fill dirt that’s come off the mountains, and that’s why when we have a lot of rain, we get flooded. The water has no place to go but in our yards.

"I think if it can happen to my neighbor it can happen to me. It can happen to anybody. And I care about my neighbors. I care about the people who have to live like this. It’s not right that people have to live with bombs going off around their houses. Because when they blast, it feels like a bomb going off. It sounds like a bomb going off.

"There’s a group near me called the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition that’s doing incredible work giving the people of West Virginia a voice. I think people need to be heard. People who live in and around mountaintop removal sites need to have a voice. All we hear from the coal companies is, if you stop mountaintop removal mining, you’re going to stop all mining. And that’s absolutely not true."

Photo by Mark Schmerling.