Appalachians Speak Out (part 2)

posted by Josh Ran

Maria Gunnoe
Maria Gunnoe
We spent this morning with Maria Gunnoe from Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, this year’s Goldman Prize winner. Maria is an incredible woman who says that the coal companies put her through hell on a daily basis. Maria’s life has been threatened her life frequently, from bomb threats to attempts to run her off the road. Abuse is a constant part of her life; just yesterday someone almost hit her car as she drove with her daughter and son, blasting his horn and giving her the finger as he passed.

Maria is an animal person and lives with rescued cats and dogs and once fostered an injured deer. Around 2000 she noticed that frogs, once ubiquitous in the fields in front of her home, had started disappearing. The field used to be so loud with croaking that you couldn’t hold a conversation, but not anymore. She soon found out that the stream running by her home carried polluted run-off from a blast site.

Maria showed us one spot (among several) where trees had been clear cut within sight of her home. In this particular spot, the contractor had not spoken English and deforested the wrong location. She was very concerned about the number of foreign workers being brought in to do very dangerous work. She said they’re often unaccounted for. The coal company puts them up in tents and pays them “scraps.”

She spoke about how several family cemeteries are currently being destroyed by mountaintop removal. Her group went in and marked off the required 100 foot buffer zone around three cemeteries, and the coal company moved the markers. The cemeteries are in the company’s permit zone, so people who want to visit gravesites, including family visiting loved ones, must make arrangements with the coal company, pay for a safety training and purchase a hard hat and hard-toed boots. She took us up to see a cemetery site, but the coal company had blocked off the access road and the only way in meant probable arrest. So much for paying our respects.

As vulnerable as the cemeteries are, they’re about all that’s left of Lindytown. Over the past year, the town has been systematically de-populated and now there are just a few occupied homes remaining. Many of the homes that are left have been vandalized and looted, allegedly by mine employees encouraged by Massey.

Massey offered everybody $25,000 to give up their land and sign away any future right to sue the company. Some sold then, others held out and saw a lawyer. The coal company then came back and asked those who remained what it would take to get them to sell. The hold-outs got at least twice that amount and sometimes more. One lifelong resident suffered a heart attack on her moving day, and died as she prepared to move for the first time in her life.

Today, we arrived in Lindytown in time to meet Laura Webb, as her friends packed up her house and got her ready to move two hours away. Laura doesn’t want to move, and she’s furious at what the coal companies are doing to her community. She faced threats and intimidation before she agreed to sell her land. And even after signing a contract, her horse was killed and a truck knocked out her phone lines. She’s mad as hell – and just moving further away isn’t going to stop her from speaking her mind. But right now, Laura’s primary concern is safely relocating her life, her family, her property and the animals she’s rescued to the new property before Massey decides she’s taken too long and denies her further access to her property.

Laura’s friend Bob was helping her move. He told us this is the second time in 10 years he’s been relocated by the coal company. He also told us that Massey mines aren’t even union. He used to live in Blair, where the union wars took place and he talked about the bitter irony of that historical site being destroyed by a non-union mining company.

Laura is a plant person, and she’s nurtured many rare and endemic plants on her land. Some are underground now, so she can’t relocate them. I also saw her well-tended garden with the ripening tomatoes that will likely never be eaten.

When the mountains are blown up, they’re “reclaimed” by being sprayed with hydroseed – a mix of grass seed, newspaper and green dye). It’s not native grass and it has no nutritional value for wildlife. Most of the plants they use on reclaimed lands are invasive. The reclaimed land tends to shift and ends up in streams, so that invasive plants now line the streams.

The coal companies clearly have no concern about the repercussions of their blasts. Maria showed us a picture of a 100 pound rock that blasted down a mountain near her house and onto the road where her son rides his motorbike. Laura told us about a massive boulder dislodged by a bulldozer that rolled through a house and crushed a 3 year-old child.

People in the community are suffering the health effects of the toxins in the air. The very toxins that miners wear masks to protect themselves from, the community is directly exposed to. Maria suffers from frequent nosebleeds and everybody she knows has health problems. As Maria said, “You know it’s destroying beautiful places and clean water, but at first you’re naïve enough to think there’s no health impact.” But they live in a cancer cluster now. Last year, a 13 year-old died of cancer.

And it’s not just the air – the water’s poisoned too. The emissions coming from the polluted streams are dangerous. And not everyone can afford to buy bottled drinking water.

Maria’s under an incredible amount of stress speaking out against mountaintop removal in coal country. But she says “My friends live here. The people against me drive through here.” She told us about being at a convenience store with a bunch of Massey employees when it started to rain. The workers couldn’t get out of there fast enough – they were scared to death of being caught in the rain when flash floods can sweep people away, destroy bridges and make survival questionable. Even though they won’t admit it, they know the risks that mountaintop removal brings to this community.

But it’s not all bad, she told us about a being in a supermarket when a man shouted out “I work for Massey coal and I support Maria Gunnoe 110%!” It was nice reminder for her that not even all of the coal workers are against her.

Maria describes this as a cultural genocide and a look at the legal definition makes us wonder where the United Nations is, or Amnesty, or anyone who could stop the destruction of this region and its people.