Editor Jon Queally at Common Dreams has just posted the testimony of Goldman Prize winner Maria Gunnoe from last Thursday’s historic Senate hearing on mountaintop removal. 

Below is the full text from Gunnoe, who is a community organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

by Maria Gunnoe

The following was submitted as prepared testimony to the The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife on Thursday, June 25, 2009:

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My name is Maria Gunnoe.  I am 40 years old and I am a lifelong resident of Boone County in southern West Virginia.  My family history there goes back to the 1700’s.   I know the areas and the people that are being impacted by mountaintop removal very well simply because this is the homeland where generations of our ancestors before me have raised their families and lived their lives.  Most of these families have depended on underground coal mining to make a living but we as a culture of people have depended on these mountains to take care of our families.  We are gatherers, hunters, gardeners, fishermen, active and retired miners, loving community members; we are stewards of this land and we are now organizers.  We are working to protect and preserve the communities, culture and people that we love and hold dear to our hearts 

Water Quality Impacts

There is a relatively new method of mining now happening in the coal fields of Appalachia called mountaintop removal coal mining.  This method of mining is where the coal companies use nearly 4 million pounds of blasting material a day (in WV alone) to blast the coal out of the mountains.  Then everything other than the coal (including trees and topsoil) is used to create valley fills in our headwater streams.  The artificial streams running off these sites are toxic with selenium. 

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The energy is temporary energy.  You only burn coal one time.  The destruction of the land, air, communities and people is permanent.   There have been 500 mountains leveled for their coal and energy in the name of homeland security.  These 500 mountains were surrounded by communities who depended on the mountain’s resources and water for their very existence.  There have now been more than 2000 miles of streams buried by valley fills.  People depended on these streams as much as any animals.  The cumulative impact of the permits that are being allowed in some incidents are further depopulating and destroying communities and people. The regulatory agencies turn a blind eye to this pollution by continuing to allow the companies to buy more time to come in compliance with the existing laws.  Without enforcement these laws are only words on paper. 

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Local communities truly do not have a voice in the process of these permits.  The DEP will set up what is called an informal conference to inform citizens of what the DEP and coal companies are planning to do and to give community members a chance to comment.  These comments are recorded and we are told that they become a part of the permit record.  In these hearings the citizens often beg the regulatory agencies to not allow these permits but commonly they approve every permit applied for.  The people who live in these communities do not want mountaintop removal mining.  Especially near their homes and communities simply because it is destroying everything they and their families before them have worked for. 

In the eight years of the Bush administration the laws and courts were aligned to destroy any protection that we had for these beautiful and unique places and their people.  The Clean Water Act lost its meaning when the Bush Administration changed one word of this law – the definition of fill material.  Another important rule — the buffer zone rule — that protected our streams was done away with on the eve of Christmas 2008.   With this rule change the Bush administration opened us as residents up to nothing but destruction. 

There are health impacts too.  A study by Dr. Michael Hendryx at West Virginia University has proven that there is reason to be concerned about the pollution that the people throughout the coalfields are being exposed to.  This study has not been taken seriously by our state leaders or our state regulatory agencies; as a matter of fact it has been ignored.  Portions of this study were based on the community of Twilight near where I live.  Twilight Surface Mines surrounds the small communities of Lindytown and Twilight and the people who live there either put up with the impacts or leave. 

The blasting has been horrible and the communitys members’ concerns are not being heard.  There are near 4 million pounds of blasting material used each day in West Virginia alone.  At one point the Department of Defense and Department of Environmental Protection allowed the coal company to dispose of old munitions from war (called tetryl, it’s used as an igniter) on the mine site behind my home.  It was too dangerous to use in war so they thought they would dispose of it in our community over our people’s heads.

We have for many generations depended on the water from these mountains.  Now this water is being polluted forever.  In the case of Big Branch Creek where I live it is now polluted with toxic levels of selenium.  This is also present in my well water.  This was quietly done by the coal company and the regulatory agency permitted it.  The entire aquifer of where I live is now a pollution spill way.  The loss of timber from our hollow alone will be felt for thousands of years to come.  There is no way that the reclaimed land can grow the hardwood forest that the natural land does.  This land is dead.  It’s impossible to grow a healthy forest on dead polluted land.  Reclamation is a pretty word but on the ground it has been proven to be impossible.


My family before me settled these mountains through the forced removal of the Cherokee, known as the Trail of Tears, and most of my neighbors have a similar story.  My grandfather told me the story his mother told him of the men in the family dressing as women to allow the women and children to escape this forced removal.  The women and children then followed the rivers to their headwaters and settled the area where I now live.  Throughout the past 250 years our families have built these places through determination and love for the place itself. The mountains here sustained our families by supplying us with an abundance of food and fresh clean water in our wells, springs and streams.  Southern West Virginians are fortunate enough to live in the second most bio-diverse region on this planet.  This is richness beyond wealth.  As residents we recognize our most valuable resources as being our land, water and people, not the coal that lies beneath it all.  Our people were here before the coal was discovered.   Why should we have to leave now in the name of coal?

Some of our current resident’s ancestors were awarded their land for military service to this country.  Now this very land is being destroyed and the residents don’t have the rights to protect it.  Appalachians are the history of this country.  We have given all to build the infrastructure that supports this American dream that we all share.  We help to supply 48 percent of this country’s energy and the cost of this is never truly calculated.  I have heard coal referred to as a cheap and clean energy source.  This ignores the facts. The facts are that the true cost of coal fired energy has never been calculated.  We must consider the cost of coal from the cradle to the grave.  We must consider the cost of mountaintop removal coal mining — for not only the aquatic life and the wildlife where this coal is being extracted, but for the human lives of everyone it touches.

I have to ask, what about the homeland security of the folks that are being forced to sell out to the coal companies in Lindytown, W. Virginia? The people who proudly built this community are being told that they are in the way of coal production and that they must leave their homes of many generations.  The coal company engineers strategically buy out homes and family-owned land to depopulate communities by making life unbearable.  Their air, land and water are being destroyed by mountaintop removal; there is no way people can continue to live here and be healthy.  They are being forced to leave home, places of many generations, to save their lives.  This alone is personally and emotionally devastating.  The boom of “Big Bertha” — a dragline — swings over the community of Lindytown.  Blasting is frequent and terrifying for residents that are holding out, not wanting to sell.

This is the same “clean coal” that forced an elderly woman out of her home who happened to die of a heart attack while she packed her belongings for the first time in 72 years.  She too was in the way of production. The people in Lindytown were only free to leave.   Why is it that as homeland security increases here in DC ours only gets less and less likely to even exist?

In our mountains we have many mountain cemeteries that date back to the beginning of civilization here.  We are grounded like our ancestors before us. These cemeteries are awarded no protection by our regulatory agencies or law enforcement.  We as citizens are expected to register and account for these cemeteries in order to protect them from mining activity and most of the time the coal companies won’t allow us into our family cemeteries to do this work.  They stop us from visiting our dead by locking us out of our ancestral land in these mountains.  I know of many grave yards that were in our mountains that no longer exist.  The areas where they were are now gone. 

The people here belong nowhere but here.  These folks will thrive in their own environment, but taken away from here they will perish as they are not where they belong.  The culture of people in West Virginia is a culture of survivalists, not environmentalists. Our existence as a culture of mountain people is being annihilated for its coal. 


Boone County falls second in poverty only to McDowell County, W. Virginia, another leading coal producing county. This is still the most impoverished area in the U.S. today.  If mountaintop removal was about jobs and prosperity, where are they?  In the 1960’s we had 125,000 direct coal mining jobs in the coal industry in W. Virginia, but now we have less than 12,000.  Ask yourselves is this really about jobs or profit and exploitation?  These jobs are temporary jobs at best.  The operation behind my home started in 2000. It is now closed down.  These good paying jobs only lasted long enough for the employees to get in debt.  

I have watched as coal companies have destroyed one of the most beautiful places in this country by mountaintop removal coal mining.  The people who live in these areas are often retired or active UMWA underground miners and their families.  The people who work in mountaintop removal most often do not live in the environment that their jobs create.  The companies are out of state coal companies and the workers are out of area workers.  The companies commonly do not hire local people.  

The coal companies will tell all that will listen that they are doing this for future economic development of an impoverished region.  They will say that we don’t have any flat land for development.  They will tell you that we need this flat land and that our mountains are useless land in their natural state.  I have even heard them say that the mountains are in the way of development. There will be no future here for anyone with mountaintop removal.   I cannot believe that we as a nation are depending on continuing to blow up mountains to supply energy in this country when the energy we need in this country rises with the sun everyday and blows in each churn of the wind.  The ridges of southern West Virginia are wind viable ridges until they are blown up.  We cannot continue to allow this to be called clean coal.

Stop Mountaintop Mining

In my own mind I know that mountaintop removal coal mining will stop.  According to USGS we are running out of mineable coal and we are quickly running out of mountains in southern West Virginia.  Global warming is very real.  We are all just pawns on this chess board called Earth.  I hope that we can stop mountaintop removal and coal’s global attack soon enough to preserve some of what is left of one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse places in this country.  The rolling hills of Appalachia are becoming the flat plateaus of the West as I speak. 

We have the opportunity to stop the annihilation of mountains and people by mountaintop removal and to change the history of energy in this country.  We are at a crossroads. We must put all special interests aside and follow what we know to be best for all of our future generations.  Stop the attack on Appalachia’s water supply and the people it sustains.

Thank you again to Senator Cardin and Senator Alexander for standing up for what any fellow human knows to be the right thing.

I would like to extend my tremendous appreciation to Senator Cardin and Senator Alexander for introducing Senate Bill 696, the Appalachian Restoration Act.  This Bill, if passed, could turn back some of the Bush administration’s changes that are currently allowing coal companies to destroy valuable headwater streams and all that is connected to them. The residents I work with in the Boone County coal fields send their support for this bill, as it is in some cases the only hope we have of remaining in our ancestral homes and in our ancestral homelands.  

I leave you with photos and a recent article about flooding in the coalfields caused by run off from flattened mountains.

This is what inspired me to get involved in stopping mountaintop removal.  There are other organizers just like me being created everyday by this industry.   We have no choice but to oppose the practice of filling headwater streams; we live here! 

Maria Gunnoe is an organizer with  the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, based in Huntington, W.Va.