An Appalachian Woman Who Stands Up to Coal

The coal belt of Appalachia isn't exactly fertile ground for environmentalism. Mountaintop mining is big business in states like West Virginia and Kentucky, where companies dig up more than 1 billion tons of the fuel each year. It's a process that pumps lots of money into the economy by way of the large number of people who work for the industry. But further down the line, the process isn't as lucrative. Particulate matter, which is a byproduct of the mining process, can often end up in the air and groundwater, according to Environmental Protection Agency monitoring.

Former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill famously stated that all politics is local. In many cases, the same is true for environmentalism—a reality that puts coal-mining communities in a tight spot. In pursuit of clean air and clean water, how does a community transition away froman industry that employs many of its residents and drives the local economy?

Part of the answer lies with people like Julia Bonds, the daughter, granddaughter, sister and ex-wife of Appalachian coal miners. Despite her pedigree, she is codirector of the watchdog group Coal River Mountain Watch, which pushes for an end to mountaintop mining and an investment in renewable energy to power local communities. Her family understands why she speaks out, but finds it hard to support the cause, primarily because the coal industry is the only job in town, a problem she refers to as the "mono-economy" created by the state. Bonds, who lives in Boone County, W.Va., calls her region the epicenter of coal's effects on human health.But she says it's also the site of a budding environmental movement. Bonds spoke with NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You're an environmental activist in the coal belt of Appalachia. How did you find that job listing?
It didn't take much more than a couple summers full of bad air and bad water experiences. I remember seeing my grandson standing in a stream full of dead fish. Then black water started running down the river. I knew that [the coal miners] were poisoning the towns around me. I was witnessing with my own eyes the state of our children's future.

It seems contradictory to advocate for the environment when the livelihood of your family history is intertwined with this industry.
The people in my family were mountaineers before they were coal miners. We have been managers of the land for centuries. In the mountains here, God gave us everything we need. It wasn't until the rest of the country realized that there was coal in them there hills that they came and stole and conned our ancestors out of the land. That made us homogenized people rather than the self-reliant people we were. The Industrial Revolution turned us into slaves to the industrial world.

In a community like yours, people have shaped their lives around this industry. It powers the local economy. How can you ask people to boycott and turn their backs on it?
I tell them that it's not OK to blast and poison your neighbors and your own children to make a living. There's a better way. We're pushing renewable-energy jobs that last forever and don't involve blasting your neighbors.

Is that a tough case to make in a community with deep roots in coal?
Of course it is. But I'll say this: the most ardent and passionate activist is the one who's just been blasted or flooded. You have some people out here who are really angry about breathing all that silicone and that taste in your mouth. The problem is that after you've been blasted for so long, you start to get used to it. We have to activate people to let them know there's a choice.

How do you combat the notion that environmentalism is only for those who drink lattes and drive Prius cars?
I'm not a latte sipper, I'm a hillbilly, man. That used to be true, but what we're seeing now is a groundswell of people on the ground. We're talking about environmental justice. It's about people whose homes are being invaded by dirty oil refineries and coal-fired power plants. What we're seeing is poor Latinos in some communities around Chicago who had a Special Olympics this month with masks on because of the particulates coming from three coal plants in the area. We're seeing people who are being damaged by coal plants. The industries are taking advantage of poor people. It's real. It's happening.

How can you gauge whether your movement is gaining momentum?
We gauge from the expansion of our mailing lists and the numbers of letters and e-mails that are being sent to the EPA and the Obama administration. We are looking at the number of protests going on about mountaintop removal. Also, we can see how many new documentaries and books talk about mountaintop removal in Appalachia. Years ago that wouldn't have happened, and now this region is becoming the poster child for dirty coal.

You say there's a better way with renewables.
There is a better way. For one thing, there's more jobs. Here's the problem: they talk about prosperity, that [abandoning coal mining] would take away so many jobs for West Virginia. But West Virginia is last in terms of income. Where is the prosperity? The problem is that we're mining more coal in Boone County today then we ever have before, but yet the poorest counties are the coal-producing counties. Explain that. The transition I'm talking about, it's inevitable. But are we going to do it while we still have time, or will we wait until it's too late?

But to the people around you, there's still big money in coal. Isn't that a reasonable motivator for them?
There are very few people here in West Virginia who enjoy the large paycheck they're getting from strip mining. The rest of us are living off minimum wage.

So why isn't it easier to turn the page on coal mining in areas like Appalachia?
The phenomenon is a lot like battered-wife syndrome or Stockholm syndrome. The state has allowed the coal industry to create a mono-economy in West Virginia, which takes away a person's choices. They feel that the only thing they can do is mine coal. That is absolutely a conspiracy because these people think they have to. If these men had a choice between a good factory job and what they're doing now, they'd probably take the job. They do have a choice, but it's very little of a choice.