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.

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.”

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.

“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.”

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.”

Gunnoe’s son has enlisted in the Navy and is leaving for boot camp in Michigan the same month his son—Maria’s first grandchild—is due. He and his stepfather have been busy outside lately, digging. Back at the house Gunnoe points to a rectangular hole nearby. “That’s where the foundation is going,” she says, beaming. Her son is building a house on this land his mother refuses to abandon. And when Gunnoe’s daughter is ready to start a family of her own, the original home will go to her. Maria and her husband will relocate somewhere else in the county, as parents and grandparents here often do, letting the young ones start out right where they were raised, Gunnoe explains.

“This belongs to them,” she says simply.

Tamara Jones is a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Originally published in the April 2010 More.

  • To read about the tensions pulling activist Maria Gunnoe’s community apart: Battle for Appalachia

* To view photos of the ravaged mountains above Maria Gunnoe’s home: Blasting Through Appalachia

  • To learn more about the ecological effects of mountaintop-removal mining: Scientist Warns of "Permanent Damage" to Appalachia Ecosystem

First Published Tue, 2010-02-23 13:49

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