She Took On Big Coal: Mining Crisis in Appalachia

The making of an unlikely activist.

By Tamara Jones
Photograph: Photograph by Matt Eich.

Gunnoe’s late grandfather and father both worked in underground mines at some point in their lives, and two of her three brothers still do. On Sundays, the extended family would gather on her grandparents’ porch after supper for bluegrass jam sessions. After high school, Maria was itching to leave the hollow; at 19 she took a factory job in Hickory, North Carolina. “But when I got out, I was hungry to come back,” she says. She returned at 25, had a son and a few years later met Richard Pitzer, a mason who courted her by leaving roses wherever she went. In 1995, Maria married Richard and eventually settled with her husband, their new daughter and her son in the small blue house her grandfather had built in Bob White, a hamlet named for the quail whose calls echoed down from the ridges. Life was cozy and predictable; Gunnoe became a “sports mom” and worked in the same restaurant where her mother was a cook.

“I know it sounds crazy, but as a waitress, I learned so much about the ties the coal companies and politicians and DEP agents had with each other,” Gunnoe says. “It’s a small town, and they’d all have lunch there. You just get to know who’s connected to who.”

Then a long-smoldering underground fire in an abandoned mine finally burned close to the surface, and Gunnoe’s activism surfaced as well. She grew concerned about the impact the constant haze of coal smoke was having on the Boone County community— “The elders were suddenly being put on oxygen, and the schools kept the kids inside.” She began volunteering for an environmental organization known as OVEC—the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. When mountaintop removal came to Bob White in 2000, she began educating herself about that as well.

The rumble of explosives soon replaced the bobwhite calls. Thick gray dust clumped on the furniture and windowsills in Gunnoe’s house, making her sneeze until her nose bled. The water corroded her faucets and took on “this foul smell,” she says. It also left red and gray stains on her clothes, sink and dishes. The familiar peak behind her house disappeared, and bulldozers heaved the rubble of an ancient forest into a nearby valley. Floodwaters repeatedly swept down the ravaged landscape, carving a 70-foot trench across Gunnoe’s property and washing out the two bridges that linked her to the only road out. “We had to hike in for seven years,” she re­counts. “Sometimes it’d take two hours just to unload the groceries.” (Gunnoe filed a complaint, but the West Virginia DEP concluded that heavy rainfall, not mining activity, caused the flood.)

“At first, I was concerned about what was happening to me and my backyard,” she recalls. “Then I just had the desire to know more, and the more I knew, the more I felt I had to fix.”

After years of volunteering—taking phone complaints, interviewing people living near mine sites, monitoring streams for pollution—Gunnoe became a paid staffer at OVEC, badgering regulatory agencies to enforce laws regarding inspections, permits and polluting, and providing testimony and evidence that have led to fines, injunctions or blocked permits for giants like Massey Energy and Patriot Coal. “We’ve blocked dozens of valley fill permits so far,” she says proudly.

What began as a concerned mother’s resolve turned to full-blown obsession. “I know I haven’t taken the time to pamper my relationships the way I should,” she says. Her children, now teenagers, have both been menaced, she says. Her daughter was harassed by men in mining coveralls who used the “c” word and referred to her as “that bitch Maria Gunnoe’s daughter”; her son overheard a man at a football game telling another man “how he was going to burn me and my kids up at night,” she says. Two and a half years ago, Gunnoe was scheduled to testify in federal court for the first time to stop a valley fill; if successful, she would effectively shut down a mine site. One afternoon she went outside to do yard work and heard more than 200 rounds of ammunition fired from behind her property.

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