Environmental Activist: 1952 - 2011
The mountains of Appalachia have been home to coal miners for generations. Julia “Judy” Bonds was a woman who proudly called herself to be a “hillbilly” with deep roots in the West Virginian mountains. However, this coal miner’s daughter battled the coal industry, trying to save the land she grew up on.
Judy Bonds fought a form of mining called mountaintop removal, or MTR. This process involves literally blasting off the top of a mountain to mine the layers of coal found there. This is an advantage to the coal companies because fewer men are needed to extract the coal than were in traditional mines. There is no advantage, however, to living around the mining sites.
Mountaintop removal strips huge areas of hardwood trees, increasing the threat of flooding into the towns below. Coal waste products (or slurry) contaminates valley streams. Overflow from dams built to contain some of the waste spills into the towns, polluting everything in them. The coal dust which constantly settles over everything is filled with toxins, causing townspeople and especially children to suffer from a host of respiratory and neurological problems.
Bonds grew up in Marfork Hollow and lived there until the destruction caused by this kind of mining forced her town to evacuate. She didn’t want to leave her home, where her family had lived and mined for years. But the landscape had been so materially changed that she had no choice. In an interview, she said, “There were a series of fish kills. The thing that really sticks in my mind is a six-year-old child, my grandson, standing in a stream full of dead fish….In Marfork, there’s a huge earthen dam for coal waste…I was sitting out on the front porch with my grandson, and he told me he had picked out an escape route in case the dam failed. I knew in my heart there was really no escape. How do you tell a child that his life is a sacrifice for corporate greed? You can’t tell him that, you don’t tell him that, but of course he understands that now.”
In response, Bonds began to go on the attack. She became director of Coal River Mountain Watch, working to end MTR and protect Appalachia and the people who live there. MTR mining requires many permits, often for what many would consider unsafe mining practices. Judy Bonds worked to deny those permits. For her work, Bonds was a 2003 recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, the equivalent of an environmental Nobel Prize. Every year, one person from each of the six continents receives the award. Her 2007 documentary film, Mountain Top Removal, help to spread the word about the destruction of Appalachia.
Bonds died in January 2011 after fighting cancer for eight months.