She Took On Big Coal: Mining Crisis in Appalachia

The making of an unlikely activist.

By Tamara Jones
Photograph: Photograph by Matt Eich.

More than 500 peaks across Appalachia have been sheared off so far, and coal companies dump the resulting tons of blasted rock, dirt and vegetation into steep valleys adjacent to the mine sites. The practice is legal but heavily regulated by a plethora of county, state and federal agencies. Activists like Gunnoe argue that these so-called “valley fills” routinely bury streams, destroying aquatic and animal habitats in violation of the Clean Water Act—a contention the Environmental Protection Agency has agreed with on multiple occasions, levying millions of dollars in fines against mining operations. In 2008, Massey Energy, which is based in Richmond, Virginia, but does much of its mining in West Virginia, agreed to pay a record $20 million fine and make an additional $10 million worth of facility upgrades in response to a federal lawsuit citing some 4,500 violations of the Clean Water Act. However, in a recent debate with environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Massey CEO Don Blankenship called the rules and their enforcement “unreasonable.” In 2009, he told his shareholders that the company conducts surface mining “with full respect for the stewardship of the environment.”

Activists and environmental lawyers claim that coal companies sometimes pay people to move away or simply wait for the blasting and coal dust to force them out and thereby slowly turn small communities in regions like Gunnoe’s into ghost towns.

“By destroying these mountains, they’re destroying our history and our culture,” Gunnoe says. And she, for one, is refusing to budge.

Maria Gunnoe considers herself bullheaded but not necessarily brave. “I’ve always been the jumpy sort,” she allows, and it is hard to tell, in any given moment, whether she is preyed upon or paranoid. “Did you see the hard look they gave me?” she demands after slowly driving past three men in mining overalls sitting on the front porch of a bungalow in Lindytown, a largely deserted mining community. The men don’t say or do anything, but Gunnoe still feels scrutinized. “I don’t want any comments from the peanut gallery, so I’m rolling up my window,” she mutters.

Towns like this are examples of the very intricate relationship between coal and Appalachia, says Grace Toney Edwards, a North Carolina native and head of the Appalachian Regional Studies Center at Radford University, in Radford, Virginia. “Coal companies owned towns; they provided the houses, the churches, the ministers, the teachers,” she explains. But there was exploitation as well, she adds, with miners sometimes being paid with vouchers they could only use in company-owned stores. Still, generations grew up considering “coal their livelihood, and coal companies their savior,” Edwards says.

In many ways, the rustic way of life Gunnoe has set out to preserve has already been lost. Growing up in the impoverished backwoods, she learned the names of every peak and hollow—or “hollers,” as she calls them: “A holler is like a village in the nook between two mountains.” Gunnoe’s family, like most in the area, depended on the abundance of the woodlands, which had thrived for 600 million years. What the paychecks from the coal mines and sawmills couldn’t provide, the mountains always did. Game was plentiful, and you could gather wild greens, pears, apples, potatoes and berries by the bushel. “Aw, we had the best water,” Gunnoe remembers, “so cold it’d freeze your hand and clear as a bell.”

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