Stories of Local Leaders

Maria Gunnoe – Bob White, West Virginia

[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”2_3″ last=”no” spacing=”yes” center_content=”no” hide_on_mobile=”no” background_color=”” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” background_position=”left top” border_position=”all” border_size=”0px” border_color=”” border_style=”” padding=”” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=”” animation_type=”” animation_direction=”” animation_speed=”0.1″ class=”” id=””][fusion_text]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.[/fusion_text][/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_3″ last=”yes” spacing=”yes” center_content=”no” hide_on_mobile=”no” background_color=”” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” background_position=”left top” border_position=”all” border_size=”0px” border_color=”” border_style=”” padding=”” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=”” animation_type=”” animation_direction=”” animation_speed=”0.1″ class=”” id=””][fusion_imageframe lightbox=”no” lightbox_image=”” style_type=”none” hover_type=”none” bordercolor=”” bordersize=”0px” borderradius=”0″ stylecolor=”” align=”none” link=”” linktarget=”_self” animation_type=”0″ animation_direction=”down” animation_speed=”0.1″ hide_on_mobile=”no” class=”” id=””] [/fusion_imageframe][fusion_text]Picture Credit: © Scott David[/fusion_text][/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ last=”yes” spacing=”yes” center_content=”no” hide_on_mobile=”no” background_color=”” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” background_position=”left top” border_position=”all” border_size=”0px” border_color=”” border_style=”” padding=”” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=”” animation_type=”” animation_direction=”” animation_speed=”0.1″ class=”” id=””][fusion_text]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 AppalachiansCoal 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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Report Released on Impacts of Fracking in Appalachian Basin

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, Princeton University and Stanford University released a comprehensive study on the impacts of fracking in the Appalachian Basin. The study focused on premature deaths in relation to air quality, regional climate changes and employment opportunities from industry expansion. Read More. 

Backyard Talk

Environmental Racism & Injustice

Blog by Joy Barua
The color of our skin or where we live shouldn’t determine the outcome of our health. Unfortunately, that is not the case for a large portion of the population both domestically and internationally. Environmental racism and justice are critical issues of modern society, one that often gets overlooked and gets buried by the government.
Various studies in the past have linked exposure to pollution that is often linked with racial segregation. Those living in segregated areas are more like to be exposed to pollutants. A study conducted in 2012 Environmental Inequality in Exposures to Airborne Particulate Matter Components in the United States
found that exposure to particulate matter (PM) is higher amongst those of color than whites. The study looked at exposure to various components in which both Hispanic and Blacks had a higher amount of exposure compared to whites. The study also looked at exposure based on Socioeconomic Status (SES) and the result finds that persons with lower SES were significantly more exposed to higher levels of PM than those with higher SES.
There are many other studies similar to the one mentioned that found both Blacks and Hispanics have a higher amount of exposure compared to whites. However, African Americans have a higher chance of being exposed to pollution from the emissions of factories due to the placement of these facilities in minority neighborhoods.
Credit: Jon Hrusa/EPA
Environmental health is not only about being exposed to toxic components but also about the surroundings of a person’s living and working conditions. Black people are some of the most vulnerable population when it comes to neighborhood and community disparity. This is prominent in South Africa where the living and social conditions for blacks are far more challenging compared to whites as stated by Robert Bullard in his book The Quest for Environmental Justice. In South Africa, whites make more money while paying less tax while black people are making less money while paying higher taxes.
The corrupted political system in South Africa also favors whites more than blacks. As a result, black peoples are almost being pushed out and being forced to live under cruel circumstances such as living near power and sewage plants. As a result, they are exposed to more hazardous substances. Blacks in South Africa also face neighborhood disparity as there are more parks and recreation created for those living in the white neighborhood compared to blacks. Black people in South Africa are also exposed to workplace disparity as they work in some of the most unsafe work conditions under the reconstruction and development program (RDP).
TheScoreWorkingFileV3Page2WEB_img                                       Credit: Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn / The Nation. Shutterstock images
Similar situations are also prevalent here in the states where some African Americans are living without modern sanitation and access to clean water. Flint’s water is a perfect example of that where a town with a majority black population does not still have access to clean water after the city switched its water source to the Flint River. As I mentioned earlier that people of color are more likely to be living near hazardous-waste facilities, but another report states that people of color are exposed to a level of nitrogen dioxide—which emanates from cars and industrial sources as stated in the article Race Best Predicts Whether You Live Near Pollution
While the EPA had acknowledged and made progress on the issue of environmental racism and injustice, the current administration has dismantled much of the work that had been completed. It started with President Trump placing Scott Pruitt as the new EPA administrator leading to the dismantling of previous federal-environmental justice work. Further changes are taking place as those scientists that have been working on and has extensive knowledge of environmental justice are now either being fired or replaced by the current administration as reported by The Atlantic
Thus, burying the issue of Environmental racism and injustice in our country!


Women’s History Month: Environmental Activists

In honor of Women’s History Month, NextAvenue highlights the incredible work of Lois Gibbs and Linda Garcia. Both women have won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for their work against environmental injustices. Although their fights are decades apart, the work at Love Canal and against the Tesoro Savage oil company demonstrate how environmental activism is still as important today as was in 1978. Read More.