by Tammy Marie Rose

Appalachia is ground zero in an issue important to every American who uses a computer, flips on a light switch, watches television or takes a hot shower. More than 50 percent of the electrical power in the United States is produced by coal. Across the nation, a schism that separates pro-coal and environmental movements over mountaintop removal, a destructive yet highly effective form of strip mining, is deepening.
Mountaintop removal, simply known as MTR, is a form of surface mining that involves the removal of the summit or summit ridge of a mountain using high-powered explosives. Entire coal seams are removed from the top of a mountain, hill or ridge by removing the so-called overburden (soil lying above the economically desired resource).

After the coal is extracted, the removed material is supposed to be put back onto the ridge to approximate the mountain’s original contours. Any overburden the mining company considers excess is moved into neighboring valleys. Valley fills bury hundreds of miles of mountain streams.

Scientific studies clearly show that mountaintop removal has serious environmental impacts that include loss of biodiversity.

The coal mining industry claims that it can “reclaim” and reforest areas subject to MTR. Another point of debate is whether MTR creates substantial jobs, or whether it displaces jobs by replacing traditional underground mining with the use of dynamite and gigantic machines.

The impact on local communities’ air quality, drinking water and natural beauty is also a point of debate. The coal industry clearly states that mountaintop removal creates flat lands that are more suitable to economic development and recreational uses.

At the heart of the debate are coal miners who want to keep the jobs they have had for decades, environmentalists who oppose all coal mining and a coalition of people who would like to see mountaintop removal replaced by less damaging coal mining practices.

The Obama administration’s own experts say proposed new coal mining regulations to protect streams would eliminate 7,000 of the nation’s 80,000 coal mining jobs. The jobs versus environment debate, especially in oil and coal mining, has heated up in part due to the slow economic recovery.Coal now employs less than 3 percent of West Virginians. According to the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, the West Virginia Coal Industry provides about 30,000 direct jobs in the state, including miners, mine contractors, coal preparation plant employees and mine supply companies. In 2009, surface mines produced 56 million tons with more than 43 million from mountaintop mining.

Maria Gunnoe / Photo by Jeramy Pritchett & Joe Lapenna

In places where mining takes place, people are poorer and dying younger. Many activists across Appalachia have raised their voices in unison a stop mountaintop removal. One of the most revered voices belongs to West Virginia native Maria Gunnoe. “Maria Gunnoe is a mother, grandmother and friend who is not afraid to stand up and give a voice to those oppressed by the coal industry,” said Dustin White of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “She is a true hero that I am always humbled in the presence of.”

“Maria is a strong woman and she does not let anyone intimidate her,” said Erica Anne Urias of the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots citizens’ organization. “She is fighting for her family as well as my own. She wants her children and my child to grow up healthy and to be able to have a home. She is the voice for all Appalachian women.”

Maria was born and raised at the mouth of a hollow in Boone County, in southwestern West Virginia. Her family’s roots to the area date back to the early 1800s.

This is clearly genocide when you recognize the very serious health impacts that are being ignored.

Maria’s ancestors escaped the forced removal of Cherokees from Georgia by walking along streams to their headwaters. They settled safely in what now is Boone County. Maria comes from a long line of coal miners. Her great grandfather, a full-blooded Cherokee, was a miner and it is his property that Maria now calls home.Her journey of advocacy began in 2000, when a mountaintop removal mine site started on a 1,200-acre mountain above her homestead. High above her ancestral land sits a valley fill, which contains two toxic mine waste ponds. Since mining began, her property has flooded several times. In 2004 most of Maria’s ancestral home was destroyed in a flood of toxic coal sludge. Her well and ground water were contaminated. The coal industry called the flood an “act of God,” thus freeing them of any liability.

“Mountaintop removal has completely remapped my life. It has turned my planned quiet years with my family into an all out battle for all of our lives,” Maria said.

In 2004, Maria began volunteering for local advocacy groups and then began working for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition to educate her neighbors about the environmental dangers of mountaintop removal. Two years later, Maria won the Callaway Award for her organization efforts. In 2008 she was featured in the film, “Burning the Future: Coal in America.” In 2009 she was awarded the prestigious Goldman’s Environmental Prize for her efforts to stop mountaintop removal.

Maria compares coal mining to genocide. “Our representatives and the out-of-state coal barons that support them are ignoring the facts that mountaintop removal is killing us and killing the culture that sustains us. This is clearly genocide when you recognize the very serious health impacts that are being ignored.”Maria has been a leading organizer in the anti-mountaintop removal campaign. “I organize to stop mountaintop removal mining in communities where it is most present. I hope to preserve these rural communities and stop the de-populations of our culture so that we may pass this on to our children. We survived living off of these mountains when the coal industry failed us so many times. This created a culture of people that belong nowhere but here. This is where they will thrive. Put somewhere else they will only live. Mountaineers live on mountain air, drink mountain water and eat mountain food. When these resources are being blown up we can’t help but to be outraged and demand that it be stopped.”

Maria looks to the future in her work. “My goals are to ban the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining and to help be a part of the transition to a renewable energy future for West Virginians with the very real possibility of jobs and energy forever. Seeing justice in Southern mountains is to see the promised prosperity without the destruction. This way we can preserve the mountains that are critical to passing on this culture of survival.”

The country has many green energy sources to consider. One quick fix that is catching on is converting existing coal plants to biomass. Fuel and maintenance costs are actually reduced and expensive pollution control upgrades can often be avoided because biomass contains very little sulfur or mercury. Often the biomass can be grown locally, providing good local jobs and keeping the ratepayers’ dollars in the community. Biomass burning is carbon neutral because the CO2 emitted by one crop is taken back by the next.The United States burns a billion tons of coal per year. Since biomass is less energy dense than coal it would take 1.6 billion tons of biomass per year to replace all that coal. A recent Department of Energy study shows that we can grow at least 1.3 billion tons on existing open land.

Geothermal is another popular choice. Done properly, it’s very reliable and efficient with minimal down time and relatively few environmental concerns. All that needs done is to do is drill a couple holes into the Earth: cold water goes down one hole, gets heated up, and then comes back up the other hole and spins a steam generator. There are several more choices in the mix, including wind power, solar power and hydropower.

Maria has been outspoken about Appalachia and the entire country turning to greener energy sources. For her efforts she has become a target of the coal mining industry. Maria has received several threats on her life. Her children were repeatedly harassed at school, a neighbor overheard people planning an arson attack on her home. Her daughter’s dog was shot and killed in her front yard. Wanted posters were put up in local grocery stores.

“The harassment and intimidation is not as bad as it once was. I think that people now see that I am not going to give up and walk away. They may actually have to kill me. Nothing scares me as bad as the mountains blowing up over my home and my children’s water being poisoned.“

At one time these threats were so real that I had to have guards watch over my home while we slept. I have to do my yard work in a bulletproof vest because of massive gunfire going off on the mine site above my home. All this happened because I testified to stop an illegal permit that was going to impact some dear family friends of mine. The men that worked on this mine site were told by their supervisors that I was costing them their job by stopping the permit. In turn there were violent attacks on me and other Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition members when we organized a meeting about this illegal permit. The workers crashed the meeting and violently pushed me and others around. After being shoved over my daughter, I came to my feet and pushed this 250-pound man back. This man then filed charges against me for battery. I fought these charges for more than a year. After taking this case to a jury trial the jury acquitted me of any charges. The jury unanimously found me not guilty. This incident was found to be self defense.”

After the jury trial, the threats continued and Maria knew she had to take them seriously. “I received more threats from these same men that they would burn my house while we slept or the threat that they would run over us on the highway. I now live under very tight security that I tend to not talk about publicly as this alone compromises our safety. My family’s safety and security comes first above all else. I hate to think of what I may be forced to do to protect myself and my family. Their right to mine coal ends when it interferes with my right to live a healthy life in my home.”

“The people of the Appalachia have sacrificed everything for energy in America. We must stop Mountaintop Removal Mining and transition to renewable energy to allow us our homeland security and to preserve our rightful place and culture in the mountains,” Maria explains.

As the battle to end mountaintop removal continues, Marie moves forward using empathy and altruism, as she fights for the vulnerable communities in the Appalachia coalfields and links environmental issues to basic human need.

The words of author Beth Spence fit Maria Gunnoe better than any other when she wrote, “In praising Appalachian women, we praise gentle people everywhere who struggle to overcome overwhelming odds, and, by doing so, show us how to light candles rather than curse the darkness of despair.”Maria Gunnoe is lighting candles of hope all across Appalachia.

For more information on Maria Gunnoe and the efforts of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition visit;