Imagine if someone came into your neighborhood, blew up a few buildings, took what they wanted and dumped the toxic debris into your drinking water. What would you do?
Maria Gunnoe and many of the communities in Appalachian West Virginia are dealing with exactly that question. While coal mining has long been important to the region’s economy, Mountaintop Removal mining over the past decade has caused large-scale environmental devastation and dramatically damaged local water.
Everyone downstream from where that mountaintop removal site is gets flooded and their wells are contaminated. My well is contaminated. Can’t drink my water. — Maria’s Story
Mountaintop removal coal mining blasts up to 1000 feet off the top of a mountain to expose the coal veins. Rock and dirt are dumped into the adjacent valleys, valley fills, often burying natural water systems. Long after the coal is gone, surrounding communities are left with poisoned water supplies and remain threatened by rock slides and major floods.
Everything around these strip sites is constantly erodin’, and there’s always water runnin’ in all different directions. The DEP calls that “streams meandering.” They were never streams before — now they’re streams! — Maria’s Story
Without natural plants and soil layers the area cannot hold water and flooding becomes frequent and destructive. Coal companies often categorize these floods as “acts of God.” It is estimated that almost 500 mountaintops have been removed, polluting 2,000 miles of waterways.
Much of the community water is now toxic and undrinkable. A former mountaintop removal mine now has 2.8 billion gallons of “coal slurry,” full of chemicals like arsenic, lead, mercury and chromium, that residents fear could flood onto the elementary school just 400 yards beneath a dam in the event of heavy rains. Children routinely come home sick. Gunnoe’s own house stands beneath a valley fill with 2 toxic ponds polluted with mine waste from mine run-off.
People around here are swiggin’ down contaminated water all day long, every day. The health affects are sometimes long-term. It’s usually pancreatic cancer or some kind of liver disease, or kidney stones, gall stones — digestive tract problems… Why do they expect us to just take this? — Maria’s Story
Easy, cheap valley fills have not always been ok. Bush-era administrative regulation basically said it was fine to dump the debris in and around streams if alternatives were too expensive, and that it was alright to use the cheapest option to fill in what was left of the top of the mountain. All of this was a dramatic blow to the Regan-era “1983 rule” that did not allow mountain debris to be deposited within 100 feet of any valley waterway. President Obama is working for new legislation to reinstate this rule and strengthen the existing Clean Water Act and put Federal money behind clean up and protection effort, in part because of Gunnoe’s activism.
Her activism has not been welcomed by local officials and coal mining employees. She reports that her family is frequently harassed and tells this story about government response:
One time I was flooded with no rain… blue skies and just barely any clouds at all in the sky… and the stream coming through my property just came up. It came up about three feet. By the time I called the DEP [WV Department of Environmental Protection] and made the proper complaints and reports, the water had subsided. The DEP said there was no evidence of what had happened and therefore it was OK.” —Maria’s Story
Gunnoe has been a tireless advocate for her community– Her work has included organizing monthly county meetings, trainings on how to read mining permits, media awareness action and nonviolent protests in addition to creating groups to monitor coal companies and report illegal acts and toxic spills. She is currently advocating for the Clean Water Protection Act and a reinstatement of the “1983” buffer zone, restricting valley fills from 100 feet around streams and rivers.
She was recently awarded the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize — the largest global award for grassroots environmental activism. Founded in 1990 by Richard and Rhoda Goldman, The Goldman Environmental prize has grown to honor local environmental heroes around the world for creating positive change through community action. In their own words:
The award comes with a “no strings attached” $150,000 prize. What will she do with the money? According to a recent interview, she hopes to have enough left over after paying the taxes to finance a pipeline for city water access. That will cost $31,000. For now she spends around $250 a month buying clean water from stores.
Maria Gunnoe’s passionate activism has been documented in the Mountain Top Removal documentary by Haw River Films, and water issues like hers from around the world are investigated in the film Blue Gold by Sam Bozzo. Since 2004 she has been working with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, fighting for clean water and environmental sustainability for her community and future generations in Appalachia.
The streams that go by me here right now are the headwaters of the streams all over the Eastern United States. Whether people realize it or not, everyone’s downstream from this. — Maria Gunnoe
This video illustrates the impact of what is happening in the Appalachia.
Visit StopMountaintopRemoval.org to read Maria tell the rest of her story.