Skip to main content

Mountain Heroes: Julian Martin

Julian Martin: My Mountain Story

Julian Martin is vice-president for state affairs of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, a longtime partner with Earthjustice in the fight to stop the destruction of mountaintop removal mining. The son of an underground coal miner, Julian is a former chemical engineer, retired school teacher and West Virginia's first Peace Corps Volunteer. His father, Weldon "Pepper" Martin, was blinded in one eye in a coal mine accident, and his grandfather and great uncle, also coal miners, took part in the historic labor uprising the Battle of Blair Mountain. Growing up, Julian heard stories of a woman they called "Mother" who came to talk to the miners—of course, the famous labor organizer Mother Jones. In 1999, Julian walked across the state of West Virginia with another Mountain Hero, Larry Gibson, in protest of mountaintop removal mining. He hasn’t stop marching since.

This is Julian's story:

My name is Julian Martin. I was born in a place called Emmons along the Big Coal River in West Virginia. I’m the eighth generation of my family to be born there. My son was the ninth generation of West Virginia–born Martins.

It was wonderful spending my early childhood in Emmons. We hoed corn, pitched hay, and took sleigh rides down the hills. We lived in this wonderful old house with two big stone chimneys and raised everything we ate. It was a perfect existence.

The first time I saw strip mining I couldn’t believe my eyes. It stunned me so much that I stopped the car and got out. They’d taken a bulldozer and just destroyed the mountain. I couldn’t understand why anybody would do that. It changed everything. The mountains went from beautiful to ugly in what seemed like no time at all.

I hated mountaintop removal mining at first sight; I thought it was awful. You see, I grew up in these mountains, with the beauty, serenity and joy you feel inside this place. These mountains are so beautiful; I didn’t want them destroyed. And I wanted my children and my grandchildren to enjoy them.

The health impacts of mountaintop removal mining have been well-documented. People are sicker where they mine coal, and they’re even sicker where they mine it by blowing up mountains. Studies show that rates of birth defects and major diseases are higher in these areas. The water and air are contaminated from the explosions and all the clouds of dust that they create.

And then a few years ago, all of this hit much closer to home during one of my regular visits to our home place. A three-mile mountain ridge leading to our family home had been blown off. When I came around the curve and saw it, I said, "Oh my God!"

At that point, I had seen probably a hundred strip mines in my life. And it still blew me away because it was my ridge. I passed that ridge on the way to the farm hundreds of times. My ancestors were buried right across the river. It was a sinking feeling. I felt terrible, like my world was disappearing.

Mountaintop removal mining is just a one-shot deal. It kills everything and then leaves. These mountains will never be replaced, and nothing good is ever going to happen on these mountains again. They’re finished.

And despite industry claims, there aren’t many jobs in mountaintop removal either. When my dad was a coal miner, there were 125,000 coal miners in West Virginia. Now there are about 17,000, and only 4,000 are in mountaintop removal mining. We’re sacrificing the mountains and people of West Virginia for a small number of temporary jobs. As soon as the mountains are gone, the jobs are gone. And then what are people going to do?

That’s why I’m fighting to save what I love: this state, these mountains, and the people who live here. For the last 20 years, I’ve volunteered with West Virginia Highlands Conservancy to save my homeland and stop mountaintop removal mining. I walked across the state of West Virginia in 1999 with Larry Gibson in protest. I’ve given lectures, I’ve been in more picket lines than I can remember, and most of all, I’ve taken groups to see mountaintop removal mining. I want people to see it because it speaks for itself. People see it, and they know it’s awful.

This is not an easy fight, and I’ve been fighting for a long time now. At times, I think about quitting. But I know that there are a lot of courageous people doing a whole lot more than I am, and they need my support. I also want to be the person who speaks up when others are afraid, so they will have the courage to speak up for themselves. For their sake, I can’t quit.

I know I have not always been courageous, a few times I’ve been scared to death, and once I was downright cowardly. I don’t think of myself as a courageous person. I’ve been scared at almost every step of the way, at almost every picket line and at almost every hearing. So what is courage? It sure isn’t lacking in fear. Courage may be doing something in the face of fear – that moment when you’re afraid, and you want to quit, but you keep going anyway. Courage may be when you decide, I’m not going to put up with this anymore. I think too much of myself. I don’t want to be treated this way, and I am not going to be treated this way.