Maria Gunnoe, mountaintop removal activist, wins Goldman Environmental Prize | News

Maria Gunnoe, mountaintop removal activist, wins Goldman Environmental Prize


2009 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Maria Gunnoe. Photo courtesy the Goldman Fund.
  • 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Maria Gunnoe. Photo courtesy the Goldman Fund.

Boone County, W.V. resident Maria Gunnoe is one of the six recipients of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize, which awards grassroots activists $150,000 to "pursue their vision of a renewed and protected environment." For the past five years--despite threats and intimidation to her family--Gunnoe has fought coal mining companies who employ the environmentally destructive practice known as "mountaintop removal" in her native Appalachia. In 2007, she helped win a series of federal lawsuits that halted the construction of new mountaintop removal mines in Boone County.

She was featured in the Indies Arts Award-winning film, Mountaintop Removal.

Last month, the new EPA chief announced the agency would aggressively review mountaintop removal permit requests, which the Bush administration had allowed to expand greatly. Shortly before leaving office, Bush issued a controversial rule, allowing mining companies to dump the toxic debris from mountaintop removal into valleys and streams.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, has introduced a bill-- known as the Appalachian Mountains Preservation Act--that would make it illegal for electric public utilities in North Carolina to purchase, or use, coal derived from dynamiting mountaintops in southern Appalachia. Half of the coal used to produce electricity in North Carolina is derived from mountaintop removal, resulting in radically altered ecosystems, polluted streams and rivers, and billions of gallons of toxic “coal slurry,” collected in artificial pools, or injected into ground soil. Other than Georgia, no other state in the U.S. uses more mountaintop removal-derived coal.

From the Goldman Web site:

In 2000, a 1,200-acre mountaintop removal mine began on the ridge above Gunnoe’s home. Today, her house sits directly below a 10-story valley fill that contains two toxic ponds of mine waste comprised of run-off from the mine. Since the mine became operational, Gunnoe’s property has flooded seven times. Before mining began, Gunnoe’s property was never prone to such flooding. In a 2004 flood, much of Gunnoe’s ancestral home was destroyed and her yard was covered in toxic coal sludge. The coal company told her the damage was an “act of God.” As a result of mine waste, her well and ground water have been contaminated, forcing her family to use bottled water for cooking and drinking.

In 2004, Gunnoe, a medical technician by training and former waitress, began volunteering with many local advocacy organizations and then working for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) to educate her neighbors about the environmental dangers of mountaintop removal. She organized monthly Boone County meetings, and soon provided community trainings on how to read mining permits, write letters to the editor, interface with the media, and protest using nonviolent methods. Gunnoe also created neighborhood groups to monitor coal companies for illegal behavior and to report toxic spills. She has encouraged other residents to speak at hearings about their concerns over mountaintop removal.

In March 2007, OVEC and partner groups won a federal lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers that repealed mountaintop removal valley fill permits in southern West Virginia granted without adequate environmental consideration, and banned issuance of new permits. In defiance of the federal judge’s orders, the Corps granted permits to Jupiter Holdings to construct two new valley fills above Gunnoe’s community at its Boone County mine. OVEC challenged the permits in federal court, and a hearing was scheduled for September 2007. Days before the hearing, Gunnoe organized a media training for 20 local residents, some of whom were scheduled to testify with her. However, at the community hall, more than 60 coal miners showed up and harassed Gunnoe and her neighbors, stopping the meeting and intimidating the group.

After the incident at the community hall, Gunnoe’s neighbors decided not to testify in the hearing challenging Jupiter Holdings’ permits. Gunnoe was the sole community resident to do so. In October 2007, federal district court Judge Robert Chambers ruled in favor of Gunnoe and OVEC and issued an injunction, ordering Jupiter Holdings to halt the construction of any new valley fills at its Boone County mine.

H/t Facing South.

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