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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Stories of Local Leaders

Randy Cunningham: Extra! Extra! Making History! Write All About It!

Ohio is home to some of the nation’s most natural lands, with acres of beautiful forests, countless national parks and glistening water systems. It is a well sought after spot for a natural getaway. On the other hand, it is also a well sought after spot for industry that has placed the state as the 5th leading producer of natural gas.
Organizations and activist leaders for years have surrounded Ohio’s natural lands and vulnerable communities pushing back against industrial encroachment and expansion. Among these leaders is longtime Ohio resident, Randy Cunningham. Randy has dedicated his life to environmental activism to fight for and defend the public health rights of his community in Ohio, as well as, a handful of communities in varying locations around the country and even the world.
IMG_0233Cunningham got his start in environmental activism at a young age from a fight to defend his family’s land in Missouri from the expansion of the I-95 interstate. From that battle forward, Randy never looked back and dedicated his life to speaking out against environmental and human rights injustices. He has spent the majority of his life involved in a wide variety of campaigns, including landfill and incinerator use, the ban of plastic bags, and available housing. As a part of his lifelong achievements, Randy points to the publishing of his book, Democratizing Cleveland: The Rise and Fall of Community Organizing in Cleveland, Ohio 1975-1985. The book, released in 2007, is a compilation of nearly 15 years worth of interviews from local activists in Cleveland, Ohio. The motivation behind the book was to highlight the portions of activism that the public doesn’t normally get to see or pay attention to. 
“Everyone wants to be on camera and no one wants to give credit to the people doing the groundwork. They are the important people.”
Cunningham explains that his writing is a large part of his activism efforts. “E.P. Thompson (a British historian and writer) once said that you cannot make history and write about it at the same time. Well, I try to do both.”
In between writing and working with numerous organizations, Randy is currently participating in the movement to block Ohio Senate Bill 33, (Modify Criminal and Civil Law for Critical Infrastructure Damage) also known as, the anti-protest bill. The state legislature has introduced the bill as a means to protect “critical infrastructure” and individuals from damage and danger resulting from operational interference. The bill has defined  “critical infrastructure” as a facility that is enclosed with a fence or physical barrier and includes petroleum refineries, natural gas processing plants and interstate pipelines. In total, the proposed bill has listed 73 different types of industrial structures as “critical infrastructure.” 
Ohio SB 33 is not the first bill in the country to propose anti-protest legislation. In response to the Standing Rock protests that impeded the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, 18 states have to varying degrees introduced or passed a bill limiting the protest of pipeline construction or operation. Among the states that have passed a similar bill are Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee. In addition to Ohio, five other states (Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota and Missouri) have introduced an anti-protest bill and are still awaiting a final decision. States across the country are taking a stance to partner with and protect the development of the oil industry, while in effect, making most acts of protest against the energy industry illegal. 
The problem with SB 33 lies in the vagueness of its language that would make a simple act of protest against a pipeline a criminal offense. An individual can be charged with a third-degree felony for protesting or trespassing on any structure outlined in the bill, with fines up to $10,000. Further, organizations that participate in any protest activity could face fines as large as $100,000, or ten times the maximum fine imposed on an individual for a 1st degree misdemeanor ($1,000). The bill in all, protects the oil and gas industry from any interruption that might obstruct production.
Randy, along with many of his other community members have not taken to the introduction of the bill sitting down. In addition to community petitions and hearings, many individuals in opposition to SB 33 have documented their concerns through written testimony. In his testimony, Cunningham questions lawmakers’ intentions in the bill, explaining that most acts of protests within the state are done through nonviolent civil disobedience. Many individuals are trained to ensure that the demonstrations will be done in a structured way without the use of violence or damage to infrastructure. Randy questions why Ohio officials are concerned about such types of protests that peaceful exemplify Americans practicing their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly.
Further, Randy likens the bill to some of the nation’s most historic transformative moments in which organizers have risen above industry and political control. Similar movements of the sort include the  the women’s suffrage movement and the achievement of labor rights. Randy explains that the bill will not quiet those in opposition to the threats the oil and gas industry place on the basic rights to human health.
The bill currently sits in committee on the House side of the Ohio State Legislature where it will then be taken to a vote. The bill passed within the Ohio Senate on May 1, 2019, with a majority vote of 28 to 8. Randy urges organizations and individuals to continue to comment on the bill expressing their concerns of opposition while it sits in committee. If the bill does pass, it will not signal the end of the fight. Community members, along with Randy, are prepared to take their fight to the highest level to combat the bill and its obstruction of basic civil rights. 
For more information on SB 33 please contact Teresa Mills at

Stories of Local Leaders

Emma Lockridge, Michigan United, Detroit, MI

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Emma Lockridge // OurFuture
Emma Lockridge // Photo sourced by OurFuture

Emma Lockridge, an environmental justice organizer for Michigan United, began her fight against the Marathon Petroleum Corporation nearly 6 years ago. From the observation of her mother’s house, only a few blocks from the facility, Emma noticed a thick blanket of pollution covering the sky. It wasn’t hard to determine the source of the contamination that was partnered with an overwhelming odor that was so strong it was difficult to breathe. Emma had moved into her mother’s house to take care of her after her mother had fallen ill from the exposure to the nearby facility’s toxic releases. Since then, Emma has fought tirelessly to push for the relocation of her neighbors that are subjected to high levels of toxic pollutants sourced from the Marathon plant. 


In 2011, researchers from the University of Michigan released a report in the Detroit Free Press establishing Detroit, Michigan zip code, 48217, as the most polluted area in the state. Today, the zip code still remains the most polluted in the state, releasing a total of 151,800 pounds of various air emissions in 2018 alone. Claiming 99.6% of those air emissions is the Marathon Petroleum Corporation. 
Expanding 250 acres, the Marathon Petroleum Corporation produces an incredible 132,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Sandwiched between the Oakwood Heights and Boynton communities, the facility releases hundreds of pounds of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter into the air, increasing the human health risk for respiratory and heart disease for the surrounding communities. 
In anticipation of problems concerning a $2.2 billion expansion in 2012, Marathon presented a buyout program to residents located northeast of the facility. Residents of Oakwood Heights, a neighborhood with a predominantly white population, received a $50,000 buyout from Marathon to relocate to a less contaminated area. 
The nearly 7,000 residents located to the south of the facility in Boynton, a predominantly black and low income community, did not receive such an offer. Why didn’t Boynton receive a buyout? Was it because they don’t have the complexion for protection? Regardless of reason, for the last six years, Emma has worked to make sure her neighbors receive a comparable buyout offer as those in the Oakwood Heights community. 
Ms. Lockridge explains her approach to activism as unique. She states that when the pollution is at its worst, that is when she takes action and gets closer to the facility. She has put her body and health on the line for years to collect data and pictures on Marathon’s pollution. Some nights the pollution and odors are so intense that Emma has gone to bed wearing a face mask to protect herself from breathing in the contaminants. 
Emma explains, “When I notice the flares releasing in the night, I will drive towards the plant to take pictures. When the odors are at their worst, I go towards the plant to document what is happening. It is my word against theirs and I have the documents.”
In addition to gathering evidence against Marathon, Emma spends her time organizing her neighbors for protests against the plant for relocation. She describes the conditions in Boynton as unlivable. As part of the expansion, the Marathon Petroleum Corporation expanded their operations to include the production of Alberta tar sands oil. The production of tar sands results in increased emissions of particulate matter and pollution. Emma says that even furniture that has been left outside has to be cleaned every few days to remove the black particles that will accumulate, evidence to what residents are breathing in everyday.
When asked if there have been any observable changes since she started her work, Emma says, in some ways, yes. Marathon has not agreed to a buyout but Emma explains that there have been some changes in the neighborhoods in Boynton. Houses have been deteriorating for years and some have even been abandoned, but the city of Detroit is on the upswing. With a new wave of gentrification, houses that were thought to have been abandoned in Boynton are now being occupied as people are being pushed to the outskirts of the city. The demographics in the neighborhoods are beginning to look more diverse as various low-income residents move closer to the pollution.
Instead of relocation, Emma has observed an increase in residency. A trend that is only bringing more people in proximity problem. No dramatic change has occurred to date on the status of relocation for the residents of Boynton. However, Emma Lockridge and her neighbors refuse to give up the fight.
“I will continue to fight until I die,” says Emma. “I have already been diagnosed with kidney failure, cancer and asthma. The fight has already given me a death sentence, so I’ll continue to fight until I’m dead.”[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]