You’re sitting on the front porch of your isolated mountain house. You rock back and forth as you take in the vastness of the open fields in front of you. In the distance you examine the silhouettes of the mountains that hug you on all sides. The only sounds you detect are the creaking of your chair and from the faint movements of the wildlife that are openly welcome to play on your property. As you rock, you breathe in the peacefulness of your surroundings. Then all of a sudden, your eardrums rumble, the earth quakes, and a cloud of dust taints your view. The mountains that raised you are now being blown apart and your home will never be the same.
This is what happened to mother and activist, Maria Gunnoe. Born and raised in Bob White, West Virginia, Maria has dedicated the last 25 years of her life towards fighting mountaintop removal and protecting the land that she calls home.
Picture Credit: © Scott David
While living in Cazy, West Virginia with her husband and two children Maria endured firsthand the negative consequences of mining pollution with waves of ash and smoke that were so dense at times that people couldn’t go outside. Her well water that her family lived off of became contaminated; the school her children attended was exposed to underground mine fires; and, her children developed harsh breathing conditions.
In 1997, Maria moved back to her hometown in Bob White to care for her grandfather and the property she was raised on. At that time Maria vowed to preserve the beauty of the land her family has owned for generations. She envisioned her kids having the opportunity to grow up with the same natural lands that she had as a little girl. However, not long after returning home, Maria received notice that 1,183 acres of mountaintop removal was permitted to begin at the back of her property’s boundary and in the headwaters of the stream that runs through her land.
For years to come, Maria would suffer the consequences of mountaintop blasting. On multiple occasions her property in Bob White was severely flooded from her stream. As a result of the mining operations, Big Branch Creek often over flowed from being filled with displaced rocks and mountaintop debris. In 2003, Maria and her family experienced the most devastating flood in which pollution ponds from the neighboring mining site overflowed onto her property ripping a 20-foot deep and 60-foot wide trench. In the aftermath of this storm, Maria contacted the media to expose the dangers of mountaintop removal, igniting the start of her activist career.
After the story broke about the trench ripped in her yard, Maria received a surplus of outreach from newspapers, local TV and radio stations, and film producers wanting to learn more about the impacts mountaintop removal has on local residents. Lawyers, politicians and environmental organizations reached out to represent Maria in her fight. She had an army on her side, or so she thought. Looking forward to her fight against one of the largest energy industry sectors in the nation did not look easy but Maria held onto hope.
“I made a promise to myself that I would do whatever it took to end the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining. However, I never knew what I was saying until it was over.”
Maria spent her first 12 years as an activist speaking out in the courtrooms against mountaintop removal as a standing witness in numerous cases against coal mining companies. During this time, Maria was labeled a “job hater” to the people in her community. Posters of her face were plastered around town for all to see that Maria was speaking out against an industry that supplied many jobs in her hometown. It didn’t matter that she was fighting to protect her family and her home. Her work was trying and dangerous at times as her family faced death threats, some of which were even sent from peers she grew up with in school. Maria spent many sleepless nights to ensure the safety of her family. On one occasion, she spotted a trespasser with a gas cans in hand ready to burn her home. On other occasions, she could hear gunfire circling her property.
“I never knew what could happen next.”
With work as a standing witness, Maria was required to officially become a member of the environmental organizations she was fighting alongside. She describes her experience working with different environmental activist groups in the beginning as hopeful. She shared her story any chance she could to help the cause. However, it wasn’t until later that she learned how unfair her story was being treated. Maria explains that most organizations took advantage of her and her story for their benefit and not for the complete benefit of the cause.
While as a waitress at the time, Maria dedicated as much time as she could to volunteering for the cause. Eventually, because of her stance against the coal operations, her shifts were cut down to one day a week. Maria was required to work those shifts alone in isolation. However, she used the transition to her advantage by collecting whatever money she could and dedicating more of her free time to volunteering and traveling to speak at universities, churches and other environmental organizations.
Today, Maria explains that her journey has been the furthest from easy. She risked her life constantly by visiting dangerous blasting sites. Maria explains on one occasion while doing some water testing she got stuck in a pit of mud. When she returned home that night, the skin on her legs was so irritated from the chemicals in the water that her skin began to burn off.
Once she was hired as an organizer her time as a volunteer became expected. She worked on average a minimum of 60 hours a week for a modest salary and at times clocked as much as 120 hours a week. She worked tirelessly, fulfilling more roles than presented in her job description, and received the bare minimum in wage. Many times, Maria gave not only her heart and story for the cause but even the money from her own pocket to cover travel expenses.
“I look back and think… what have I done? I’m pretty much back where I started other than I’m 51 now and I have no real earning potential in my home town anymore because of the damage to my name”
Maria still takes residence on her grandfather’s property. She explains that she will never leave that land and her community, it is the reason she continues to fight. Yet she continues to receive coal-blasting notices for the mountain behind her property. For two decades, her community has suffered from the exposure to the dangerous residual contaminants from mining. The community has continued to wait for science-backed reports from the USGS that illuminate the adverse health impacts of mountaintop removal that still hasn’t come, meanwhile neighbors continue to fall ill or die from related health conditions.
Instead of having a retirement to look forward to, Maria works as a volunteer executive director of the Mother Jones Community Foundation (MJCF), along with Mari-Lynn Evans who is the founder of the MJCF, and producer and director of The Appalachians, Coal Country and the Emmy nominated Blood on the Mountain. Through the foundation, Maria continues to speak out against mountaintop removal and help burdened communities just like her own. Despite her long and difficult history of mountaintop removal activism, Maria will never give up the fight for the place she loves and its people.
Learn more about the work of the Mother Jones Community Foundation here!
Maria continues her work through community donations. Please help support Maria Gunnoe continue her work to help other communities confronted with devastations from mountain top removal mining.
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