Born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, Julia Bonds (d. 2011) is a coal miner's daughter and the director of Coal River Mountain Watch. Over the past six years, Bonds has emerged as a formidable community leader against a highly destructive mining practice called mountaintop removal that is steadily ravaging the Appalachian mountain range and forcing neighboring communities, some of whom have lived in the region for generations, to abandon their homes.
In 2001, Bonds and her family became the last residents to evacuate from her own hometown of Marfork Hollow where six generations of her family had lived. Marfork had been virtually destroyed by mountaintop removal mining, which involves completely blasting off the tops of mountains so that huge machines can mine thin seams of coal. Mountaintop removal mining completely annihilates streams and forests, and causes extensive flooding and blasting damage to homes. The pollution from mining and the toxic chemicals used in the preparation of coal for market have been linked to rising asthma rates and other serious respiratory ailments, particularly among children, including Bonds' grandson. Residents who live near the mining blast zones also suffer from traumatic stress. Slurry dams thick with heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead routinely overflow into watersheds, contaminate drinking water and drive toxic sludge into residents' backyards. As a result, thousands of local residents have been driven out of their homes.
Mountaintop removal mining has also been catastrophic for Appalachia's waterways. Coal companies routinely dump the tons of mountaintop debris into nearby valleys and streams. Today, more than 1,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams have been completely buried and 300,000 acres of the world's most diverse temperate hardwood forests have been obliterated by so-called "valley fill."
Bonds, who previously had worked as a waitress and manager at Pizza Hut and for convenience stores, now devotes 90 hours a week to protect Appalachia and the people who live there from the ravages of mountaintop removal mining. The catalyst for her activism, she says, was the day her grandson stood in a stream in Coal River Valley with his fists full of dead fish and asked, "What's wrong with these fish?"
Since then, her dedication and success as an activist and organizer have made her one of the nation's leading community activists confronting an industry practice that has been called "strip mining on steroids."
Bonds' primary nemesis is Massey Energy, the nation's fifth largest coal producer and the company responsible for the destruction of Marfork and many other Appalachian towns. Richmond, Virginia-based Massey, has one of the worst environmental and safety records in the country. In 2000, it was responsible for the worst environmental disaster in Southeastern history when a slurry spill released over 250 million gallons of coal sludge in Martin County, Kentucky. Massey currently runs numerous mountaintop removal strip mines throughout Appalachia and holds a number of pending permits to mine along the Coal River Valley.
Operating from a small storefront on a shoestring budget, Bonds has scored a number of important victories despite enormous industry opposition. Foremost among them is the critical partnership she forged with the United Mine Workers Union over overweight coal trucks. Coal trucks routinely bearing twice the legal load barrel down narrow, steep highways and through towns, endangering drivers, beating up the roads and cracking house foundations. The monster trucks have been responsible for fourteen deaths in the past two years, including a brother and sister who were crushed to death when a coal truck forced their vehicle into another oncoming truck. Thanks to the mineworkers' union and community pressure, Bonds and other activists filled a lawsuit against coal operators that will force companies to haul safe and legal loads. Bonds is currently working with activists to launch a national grassroots campaign that asks people to write postcards to the governor of West Virginia pledging that they will not visit the state until outsized coal trucks are banned.
In a testament to her vigilant monitoring of mining-related violations and advocacy efforts, Bonds has also been instrumental in winning important concessions from the State Mining Board, which recently imposed a 30-day suspension on a polluting Massey mine and set tougher protections for local communities against mine blasting.
These victories have come at a price to her personal safety. Bonds routinely receives threatening, anonymous phone calls that intensify whenever she plans a protest. She and other activists have been threatened by armed security guards on Massey's payroll when they show visitors, including journalists, sites that have been devastated by mining.
As Massey pours hundreds of thousands of dollars into an ad campaign to whitewash its image in mining country, Bonds is organizing faith groups and local activists to picket Massey's annual stockholders meeting set for mid-April. In an attempt to avoid the public outcry about their operations, Massey refuses to divulge the location or date of their shareholder meeting until the last moment. Bonds is also pushing for public hearings about the Bush Administration's final Environmental Impact Statement on mountaintop removal mining. Because of the involvement of Steven Griles, a former mining industry lobbyist turned second in command at the Department of Interior, activists doubt the statement will paint an accurate portrait of the real threats and costs of mountaintop removal.
Bonds is also galvanizing grassroots response to the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on mountaintop removal, which was issued on January 29, 2003. The ruling, based on an appeal brought by the Bush Administration, overturned a landmark federal court ruling that banned mountaintop removal mining on the grounds that it violates the Clean Water Act. Since the new ruling, West Virginia has been bombarded with new mountaintop removal mining permits. Bonds and other local citizens are fighting these permits in the courts.
Bonds is fighting the Bush administration on a number of fronts as President Bush continues to support a national energy plan that is far too reliant on continued coal production. His victory in the presidential elections was due in part to his upset in West Virginia, which has been credited to the efforts of James H. Harless, a local timber and coal magnate who was awarded a spot on Bush's transition task force on energy and who now sits on Massey's board of directors.
"Julia is lifting up a region of the U.S. often forgotten by the rest of the country," said Carolyn Johnson, staff director of the Citizens Coal Council. "Julia has figured out a way to communicate the message of what's happening to this area. She brings in politicians and other activists to see the effects of mountaintop removal mining. Julia knows the risks of doing this work; she's constantly threatened. But she knows that she is giving people living in the coalfields voice and power nationwide."
"When powerful people pursue profits at the expense of human rights and our environment, they have failed as leaders," Bonds has said. "Responsible citizens must step forward, not just to point the way, but to lead the way to a better world."
Goldman Environmental Foundation
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