She Took On Big Coal: Mining Crisis in Appalachia

The making of an unlikely activist.

By Tamara Jones
Photograph: Photograph by Matt Eich.

The Obama administration has promised to review changes the Bush administration made to the Clean Water Act—changes that allowed coal companies to dump mine debris into streams. Valley fill permits are no longer being rubber-stamped by the Army Corps of Engineers and EPA (at this writing, 79 permits are under review, 23 of them in West Virginia). Meanwhile, Maria Gunnoe patrols the rugged mountains and valleys in her Jeep, conspicuous among the pickup trucks and Fords more typical along the rutted roads. She keeps an eye out for fallen trees and debris, or for black water in streams. “That sludge pond has breached!” she cries, pulling over across from in-ground water containments on coal company land. She points to puddles of brackish water in the weeds, grabs her Nikon and marches to the middle of the road, clicking away. “If I get run over, just grab the camera,” she advises, only half-joking.

Her first stop today was Lindytown, which backs up to a mountaintop removal project about 10 miles from Gunnoe’s home. Flooding, pollution and the stress of living so close to the blasting and heavy machinery have forced most of the roughly 40 residents to flee, and now many houses are abandoned and the church is boarded up. Coal company lawyers routinely hand out five-figure checks for “relocation assistance” to homeowners in the path of mountaintop removal; environmental groups regard it as hush money, since such settlements bar involvement in any future lawsuits. “Many residents of Lindytown were interested in selling their property to Massey, and they contacted Massey,” says the company’s PR representative, Jeff Gillenwater. “It is important to note that none of these properties had to be bought [to execute the mining plan].”

Gunnoe slows down at the edge of Lindytown and toots her horn outside a double-wide mobile home. Lora Webb pokes her head out the screen door and waves. She and her husband (who is not home today) are among the last holdouts here. Webb was eager to escape the detonations that shook her trailer and left wads of dust everywhere. But she says her husband, an underground miner who had grown up here, didn’t want to leave. Families go back for generations in Appalachia, and the land is often held “in heirship,” meaning it is divided and then later subdivided multiple times among remaining relatives—dozens of them, sometimes. A distant cousin in Arizona who has never lived in West Virginia could have a say about what happens to property that a native has lived on for most of her life. When the Webbs refused the coal company’s initial overtures, Lora recalls, the firm traced enough heirs to buy their shares and force the Webbs out. After three years of blasting, the couple finally accepted an $80,000 settlement check and were given 60 days to vacate. Their only other recourse would have been a legal fight—an option beyond the means of most people living in the impoverished region.

As far as Webb is concerned, the mining behind Lindytown ravaged more than the mountain. When her in-laws started selling their shares of the property, she recounts, one of them got $15,000. Now, she says, there are family members her husband doesn’t talk to anymore. (More was unable to reach Webb’s husband for comment.) She adds that she and her spouse are at an impasse, as well. “He wants to stay in the hollow,” she says. “I’m 41 now. I want some fresh air. Clean water. That’s all I’m asking for.”

Like Lora Webb, Gunnoe’s husband, Richard, was a transplant to Boone County, and he saw little point in staying. Living downslope from a massive mining operation was stressful enough without his wife’s activism making the family a target of resentment. Gunnoe says that her husband, tired of feeling as if he was living under siege, left her for several months last year; they have since reconciled, but Richard Pitzer separates himself from his wife’s crusade. He declined to be interviewed.

“He understands now that I’m doing this for our kids and their futures,” Gunnoe says. Still, she admits, “I think I drive him crazy . . . and I believe there’s a chance he’ll need another break from me before we die.”

Share Your Thoughts!


Post new comment

Click to add a comment