She Took On Big Coal: Mining Crisis in Appalachia

The making of an unlikely activist.

By Tamara Jones
Photograph: Photograph by Matt Eich.

“I’d like to think they were better shots if they meant to hit me,” she says wryly. “They’re trying to scare me.” Gunnoe did testify. Nonetheless, a year would pass before she felt comfortable venturing into her yard without wearing a bulletproof vest. Today Gunnoe’s house, now painted a camouflage khaki and green to make it less visible to her foes, is a small fortress behind a six-foot chain-link fence that she loathes. Video cameras and two guard dogs give her some sense of security, but “it takes a toll,” she says. “There are days I literally can’t get my head out of my hands.” Gunnoe says her daughter’s dog was shot and its body dumped in front of the post office, where the kids’ school bus stopped each day. Another family dog was shot years later in the backyard.

“They got a saying: ‘First we kill your dogs, then we come for you,’ ” says Larry Gibson, an activist and mentor of Gunnoe’s who has fought mountaintop removal in West Virginia for 25 years. But in spite of this climate of hostility, Gunnoe considers it futile to report the harassment to local law enforcement, claiming that even potentially life-threatening incidents are never thoroughly investigated. No one, she insists, will even bother taking a report against a coal miner in Boone County. Not true, counter the state police and sheriff’s offices. Sergeant Andy Perdue notes that the state police have made at least one arrest (when a miner’s wife hit a protester). But in this highly charged atmosphere, he adds, not all harsh words result in a police action. As he puts it, “Everyone threatens everyone around here.” (West Virginia governor Joe Manchin has begun meeting with coal companies and citizens on both sides in an attempt to defuse tensions.)

Miner Roger Horton, who spent the first half of his career underground before layoffs prompted him to “become fluent in large earthmoving equipment” and shift to mountaintop removal, says the threats run both ways. “Are there tensions? Absolutely,” says Horton, founder of the advocacy group Citizens for Coal and an employee of Patriot. “I’ve had people call and tell me they’ll kill my ass [if I don’t stop mining mountaintops],” he says. Like Gunnoe, he responds with the mixture of dry humor and grit so prevalent in the hardscrabble hollows: “If someone wants to kill you, honey, there’s not a dadgummed thing you can do about it. You’re a goner. People who make these threats are cowards. I applaud Mrs. Gunnoe for standing fast to her beliefs.”

But though he’s had what he describes as cordial debates with Gunnoe, Horton, a citizen of Appalachia for all of his 56 years, draws a conclusion different from hers about the coal in the surrounding mountains: “The good Father put it here for us to use, and that’s what we’re doing.”

“I love this land, too,” he adds. “It’s my heart, and I want to see it taken care of in proper fashion.” He lauds the reclamation projects coal companies have undertaken to restore mountains after mining is complete—projects that have ranged from planting trees and grasses to using the now-level land for economic development, building prisons, shopping malls and even a golf course.

“I don’t know too many hillbillies who play golf,” Gunnoe scoffs. Her fat files include sheaves of aerial photos showing vast, empty moonscapes where mountains once were.

Concedes Horton: “You don’t disturb a mountaintop and put it back exactly as it was, and the law doesn’t require you to.”

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