Fighting King Coal Is a Dirty Job

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We chose Julia “Judy” Bonds as an Utne visionary because we saw in her a rare sort of courage and conviction. As the codirector of Coal River Mountain Watch in Whitesville, West Virginia, Bonds has for more than a decade been at the fore of the battle against what she calls “King Coal.” After she began witnessing firsthand how mountaintop removal coal mining was irreparably damaging her region’s land, wildlife, and people, she fought back by speaking out forcefully against the practice and working to end it–persuasively, legislatively, and, if necessary, bodily. (She has been arrested twice at protests.) Now a matriarch to the anti-mountaintop removal movement, she spends part of her time traveling to share advice and tactics with college students and other green groups. I interviewed Bonds about the state of the movement, her inspirations, and her resolve in the face of daily danger.

How did you get started in the fight against mountaintop removal?

“Basically, I’m a coal miner’s daughter and granddaughter, and I’m an eighth generation resident here in the Coal River Valley. I lived in a little holler in Marfork, and Massey [Energy] moved into my holler and began to mine coal so irresponsibly that it just really smacked me in the face. I realized somebody’s got to do something, because nobody’s paying attention to what’s going on.”

“What started it was black water spills along the creek where generations of my family had recreated and survived there. But what really did it was the fish kill that my grandson found in 1997 when he was 6 years old when we were walking. He was standing in a stream full of dead fish. When you see a child standing in a stream full of dead fish, asking, ‘What’s wrong with these fish?’ I don’t see how anyone cannot react to that. I watched Massey Energy poison the whole town of Whitesville several times, because I lived three miles directly upstream of their drinking water intake. And I realized, my god, they’re poisoning the whole town of Whitesville–my friends, my relatives. It just dawned on me in a couple of years there that somebody has to do something, and it’s time to speak out.”

Sometimes things get personal at protests. I saw that you were slapped in the face by a woman at a rally earlier this year. Is it tough to maintain your resolve and your dignity in the face of opposition like this?

“In a way it is, because you know that living here, where we live and where our office is, is basically ground zero–it’s the front lines of the battlefield. And you face that battle every day. I could walk out of this office and get in my car and be run off the road or run over by a coal truck. Or any night that I go to bed in my home, I could be burned down in my home or I could walk out to my car and turn it one and have it blow up. It’s a day-to-day battle. You worry about your loved ones. It’s dangerous to even walk into a convenience store around here because you never know when there’s a coal miner or strip miner or heavy equipment operator in that store who’s got it out for you and wants to hurt you. So yes, it’s tough, but you just have to be cautious and try not to think about what could happen.”

“And I’m not the only one. [Fellow activists] Maria Gunnoe, Larry Gibson–anybody here that works against coal and against the abuses of the coal industry here is subject to be beat up or possibly suffer a fatality.”

There seems to be momentum building lately around the issue of mountaintop removal coal mining. Is that your sense?

“Yes, there is a sense that there is a lot of momentum building. We had a strategic plan to ramp it up this year, particularly on the Obama administration so as to basically give him a mandate to say we’ve got to do something about this. Essentially, we’re doing this to give him the intestinal fortitude he needs to stand up to the coal industry.

“And of course the coal industry senses that it’s in its last throes. It’s like a dying animal, and it’s scratching and clawing, reaching out any way it can, and basically, its solution is to use violence, threats, and intimidation against those of us who are committed to nonviolent civil disobedience and nonviolent tactics. So they’re using violence and threats and intimidation back, and lies. They’ve already been caught up in writing fake letters, and they were caught up again using fake pictures on a website called Faces of Coal. Their response to our honest, nonviolent plea for sanity and for help is threats, violence, and lies.”

Do you think the American public is finally waking up and catching on about where their coal comes from?

“Yes, I think it is. The new movie Coal Country is coming out, and United Artists is adapting the book Michael Shnayerson wrote called Coal River into a major motion picture [On Coal River].

“So I think America is waking up, particularly after the disaster in Tennessee [the December 2008 sludge spill] and a lot of arrests, and I think a large part of it is due to the progressive movement on college campuses, called the Campus Climate Challenge, to reduce greenhouse gases. So I think coal and global warming and climate change are running hand in hand, and I think mountaintop remove is an ugly poster child, probably the strongest weapon that activists who want a future can use against the coal industry.

“So it’s definitely ramping up. Americans are becoming more aware of what’s going on, and of course the coal industry has–I think they had almost $60 million to use in campaigns and TV ads. And that’s a dangerous two-edged sword for the coal industry, because once they get the word ‘coal’ out there and people actually do start to look deeper into the coal issue, they find our issues: They find mountaintop removal. They find sludge water. They find disasters. So I think it’s a double-edged sword for the coal industry to use so much of their money on PR and advertising. Because once you go on the Internet and you type in ‘coal,’ well, there we pop up. Basically, they’re helping us spread the word, and for some reason they just don’t realize that. (laughs) And the Internet is becoming the new TV set for this new generation of college students and for kids, and we have spent the last 10 years producing so many movies, producing a lot of websites and getting information out there, that when you do cruise the Internet, we pop up everywhere. So it’s becoming quite an advertisement for us as well.”

What kinds of moments give you gratification in your work?

“Well, the most gratification in my work comes from setting in my backyard, listening to the summer insects, watching lightning bugs and fireflies, and talking to my grandson and playing with my hound dogs. That’s a calming moment for me.

“Other than that, it’s every time a new citizen or a new college student speaks out about the abuses of coal and about the need for a transition to a clean, renewable energy future–that gratifies me. Every time a new student comes up to me and says thank you so much, you’ve opened up my eyes. Or a new coalfield resident gets blasted [by mining explosions] and says I’ve had enough, I’m ready to speak out. Just recently, a couple of security guards have become disgusted with the tactics of the coal industry and have quit. So it’s those little things, those little successes, that make me feel good.

“And it’s hard for a local resident to speak out, because of all the threats and intimidation. People have been threatening to burn down people’s homes. Larry Gibson has had a couple of dogs shot, and they burned down his cabin. And every time there’s a new threat, a new intimidation. I don’t know if you’ve seen the video called Mountain Madness, Invasion of the Coal Thugs. You might want to look at that. It was a video taken on Kayford Mountain on July 4 this year, after I was assaulted at the protest.

“Every time locals see something like that, it just takes a little bit more for them to speak out. And see, the coal industry knows that they can’t intimidate those of us who are already invested in speaking out. Who they’re trying to intimidate is the other coalfield residents, our neighbors, from speaking out. It becomes very hard for people to speak out when you know that Judy Bonds got assaulted for speaking out, when there are intimidating and threatening comments and letters to the editor, when Larry Gibson’s dog got shot, or when Maria Gunnoe’s dog got shot–it makes it very hard for locals to speak out.

“This is a war zone. A lot of people don’t understand that when you live in southern West Virginia, you’re no longer living in the United States of America, you’re living in King Coal’s country. And he owns 95 percent of the media here, 98 percent of the elected officials, and the judges, the legal system as well. And that makes it almost impossible for an average citizen on their own to try to seek out justice. A lot of people don’t realize that, but if you come down here you’ll see: It is basically another country here.”

Sources: Coal River Mountain Watch, Goldman Environmental Prize, Planet Green, Politico, Huffington Post, Coal Country, On Coal River, Campus Climate Challenge

Image courtesy of Coal River Mountain Watch.

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