She Took On Big Coal: Mining Crisis in Appalachia

The making of an unlikely activist.

By Tamara Jones
Photograph: Photograph by Matt Eich.

UPDATE: Stories of mine safety concerns after the explosion that left 29 miners dead, and of tough new EPA regulations on water quality in mountaintop-removal mining, have filled the news. Here, a profile of activist Maria Gunnoe, who has been taking on the big coal companies, such as Massey (the company whose miners are trapped), over mining procedures and environmental fallout. 

Grabbing a late lunch at a deserted Chinese restaurant in a tired West Virginia town, Maria Gunnoe piles her plate with greasy noodles and wontons, her voracious appetite belying her compact frame. Between bites, she holds forth on the cause that consumes her life: what she sees as the rape of Appalachia by the mighty coal industry. “They depend on two things,” Gunnoe believes, “our people being uneducated, and our people being poor.” She has been both. Now she is neither. And for her, silence is not an option.

A grassroots activist who declares, “I’m not an environmentalist, I’m a survivalist,” Gunnoe can spend hour after hour quoting the Clean Water Act, indicting regulatory agencies and describing the selenium levels of mutant two-headed fish in polluted streams. Just shut up, her own husband has been known to beg her.

Gunnoe, 41, is petite and girlish, 125 pounds of sinewy muscle in jeans and hiking boots, with the chiseled cheekbones of her Cherokee grandfather. A diamond stud dots the cartilage at the front of each ear, and the frames of her reading glasses are filigreed with tiny peace symbols. The corners of her deep-set brown eyes turn downward, giving her a look of perpetual sorrow, and her tanned hands sport two Band-Aids and a thumb ring, but no wedding band. Her marriage is fragile. That, too, Gunnoe indirectly blames on the mining companies.

Now, mid-rant and mid-wonton, she suddenly springs up and hurries to the window. She scans the parking lot.

“I thought I saw a guy walk behind my Jeep,” she explains sheepishly. That would be her sexy new black Wrangler with the “I Love Mountains” decal on back, paid for with part of the prestigious $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize she won in 2009 for not shutting up.

Gunnoe may be a heroine in environmental circles, but she lives like a moving target. “Death threats,” she says with a shrug; she feels they’re to be expected when a native daughter dares to challenge an industry long considered vital to the economy of the second-poorest state in the country.

“I’ve had sand put in the gas tank of my old truck, and somebody tried to cut the brake line,” she says, adding matter-of-factly that coal trucks also occasionally try to run her off the narrow mountain roads of Boone County, where she lives, about 45 miles south of the state capital of Charleston. Even when it’s not hunting season, she sometimes hears the crack of gunfire from the mine site that backs up to her property line. Miners see her crusade as a threat to their livelihood, Gunnoe explains, while the huge, out-of-state energy companies that run West Virginia’s coal mines see her as a litigious nuisance.

For 12 years now, Gunnoe has waged a spirited battle to end mountaintop removal, a process by which the tops of mountains are blasted off so miners can get at seams of coal that their employers say are inaccessible or too costly or too dangerous to reach by sending miners underground. The practice began in the 1970s and now produces more than 126 million tons of coal a year—enough to power more than 25 million American homes, according to the National Mining Association. “They’re making fuel so you can have a hair dryer in the morning and your coffeemaker and a computer and electricity,” says Bill Raney, president of the advocacy group Friends of Coal.

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