Editor’s Note: What follows is an interview of Maria Gunnoe by Sandy Reid for the People’s Tribune. Maria is a 2009 Goldman Prize winner from Boone County, W. VA., who has organized in opposition to mountain top removal in Appalachia for 20 years and speaks nationally.
“We are losing about 4,000 people a year from the impact of mountain top removal coal mining. My daughter, who is only 22, has lost four friends to cancer. Her best friend died of four different cancers. There’s nearly three million pounds of explosives detonated every day in our communities. That’s like a Hiroshima every week. The blast can shake your foundation. It breaks windows. It creates dust that consumes everything, including people’s lungs. There have been 28 peer reviewed scientific studies that show this dust causes lung cancer and birth defects in the unborn. Everything in the coal mining environment ends up in the water. Most people here have wells. They don’t have access to municipal water. A lot of the water is polluted. I saw diesel floating in a man’s well. The man, and many of the area’s children, have health issues. It is his only water source. He lives on a fixed income. It’s horrible to see people drinking water laced with diesel.
“Another big impact here is pollution from underground sludge injection. The West Virginia DEP used to hand out permits to coal companies to inject coal sludge into underground mines. That sludge flows into the aquifer and then into wells. We tried to find out what was in the sludge. The coal industry told us it was a trade secret. The government agencies protected them. Now we know it causes cancer and mental disabilities in our young children. It causes kidney disease, liver disease, stomach cancer, gall bladder disease. In Prenter, W. VA, 98% of the people do not have a gall bladder. With all this, we’re dealing with poverty. They keep our people poor so we don’t have resources to fight the permits.
“It’s affecting the entire culture of a people. My family came here in the 1700s before coal was discovered. It was a wonderful place as my ancestors explained it. The waters were clean. There was abundant wildlife. When I was a kid, there were natural springs everywhere. They didn’t run red. They didn’t make you sick. Now it’s dangerous to drink out of natural springs. Everything has been destroyed. The only thing I can think of is genocide.
“The corporations and the government, their agencies, politicians, all know what they are doing. We don’t have the right to clean water and clean air, but they have the right to poison countless people’s water and pollute the air with no recourse. They don’t like it because the people are starting to figure out the truth.
“We need a new world that creates energy without poisoning people. If you don’t have clean water and clean air, there’s no future for our children. Corporations and our government don’t want renewable energy because they can’t figure out how to own it and make billions out of it. The only way we can get beyond this is to do it as a nation. People are struggling for water. Out West in California. Florida. Michigan. The people at Standing Rock are putting their lives on the line to protect their water. When we come together as a country and expose that our life-giving water resources and our air is being polluted, then, as a nation, we can force Congress and the new President-elect, Donald Trump, to protect water and air before corporations.
Maria is a Board Member of SouthWings.org and a volunteer organizer with Coal River Mountain Watch at crmw.net/