Skip to main content

Mountain Heroes: Maria Gunnoe

Maria Gunnoe: My Mountain Story

In 2000, the mountain ridge above Maria Gunnoe’s home became a mountaintop removal coal mining site. She and her family withstood ground-shaking explosions, clouds of harmful dust, severe floods, and poisonous contamination of the drinking water in their home, which was eventually destroyed by a flood, a common effect of mountaintop removal mining. The coal company told her it was an "act of God." Her experiences transformed Maria from an everyday person into a courageous, outspoken organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, board member of the nonprofit flight tour organization SouthWings (which has made possible all of the aerial views and photos of mountaintop removal), and leader of the movement to stop mountaintop removal. Over the years, her bold work has opened countless eyes to the truth about coal and its path of destruction. Her life has been threatened numerous times for her criticism of the coal industry, and she’s been assaulted and harassed, but she has refused to be silenced. In 2009, she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Prize, or "Green Nobel," for her courageous activism against destructive mountaintop removal mining. In October 2012, Maria Gunnoe will be the 22nd recipient of the University of Michigan's Wallenberg Medal, a high honor for recognizing the world's preeminent humanitarian leaders. Other recipients of the Wallenberg Medal include Aung San Suu Kyi, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet. Maria will be the first person to receive the medal for work on environmental justice. This recognition attests to the serious humanitarian consequences of mountaintop removal mining.

This is Maria's story:

My name is Maria Gunnoe. I am a native West Virginian, and a Daughter of the American Revolution. My family settled this area before coal was discovered, but since that discovery, I and my family before me have lived the history that the coal industry has left in its path. We have lived through all of the booms and busts, manmade catastrophes, and massive deaths and sicknesses that are part of coal’s history in Southern Appalachia.

This history is one of the many lessons of life I learned growing up here. I learned from my father and grandfathers that one thing you simply could not do was to trust this industry. No matter what the question, the answer always came down to the coal company’s bottom line.

Coal was always king here, but while the industry got rich off Appalachia, the people struggled to make ends meet. Yet, we made it. We survived some of the worst poverty in this country for so many generations by sustaining our lives from these mountains and streams.

Mountaintop removal mining has stolen our ability to do what we culturally always have done to survive. And now our communities are war zones with constant blasting and pollution.

Frasure Creek Mining Company, which is owned by a foreign corporation, is blowing up my homeland. One day in 2007, a blast that I watched them prepare for five days went off close to my home. And of all this dust of course ended up right on top of my home. I’m not the only one. People across Appalachia are forced to deal with these conditions all day every day. Their water is poisoned, they’re covered up with dust, and no one is listening to what they’re saying.

The Clean Water Act was supposed to protect us. In my lifetime I do not know of this law ever being fully enforced. But over recent years, crooked politics and coal money influence have completely gutted the intent of this law in Appalachia.

Our communities are becoming ghost towns, so that coal mining companies can expand their surface mining and fill the valleys and streams with their mining waste. The people around here have either been run out by blasting dust, water pollution and health and safety concerns, or they were bought out, signing contracts intended to take away their rights to contact state or federal regulatory agencies about these problems. Even our historic cemeteries are left inaccessible to the public; we must go through the coal company and its guards to visit our deceased loved ones in these now-active destruction sites.

Numerous scientific studies show that we who live near mountaintop removal mining are getting cancer, suffering major diseases, having babies with birth defects, and dying far too young.

My nephew recently reminded me of what surface mining looks like from a child’s eyes. As we were driving through our community, he looked up and said, "Aunt Sissy, what is wrong with these people? Don’t they know we live down here?" I had to be honest with him and say, "Yes, they know. They just simply don’t care."

Some politicians call their corrupt policies that favor the coal industry’s bottom line "balance." There is no "balance" when people are dying.

The coal industry and its friends in Congress claim stopping mountaintop removal mining would end jobs. The people in West Virginia definitely need jobs. But the people who think that their jobs are more important than our water haven’t had to live without water. You think it’s hard to live without a paycheck? Try living with jars over your water faucets. Try living with nothing to give your children to drink. We shouldn't be made to choose between a temporary paycheck and clean water for our children.

This is absolutely against everything that America stands for. And I know that we have better options than this. We do not have to blow up our mountains and poison our water to create energy. I will be here to fight for our rights. My family is here, we’ve been here for the past 10 generations, and we’re not leaving. We will continue to demand better for our children’s future in all that we do.

Mountaintop removal mining is going to be ended. We will not back down on this.