The Goldman Environmental Prize is the world's largest award for grassroots activism and environmental achievement. The recipients, and there have been a total of 94 of them since the prize was launched in 1989, hail from every region of the globe - Africa, Asia, Europe, the Pacific Island Nations, North America, South and Central America. In this fourth in a series of profiles of this year's Goldman Prize laureates, VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports on a coal miner's daughter from West Virginia who is leading a campaign against a modern-day coal mining practice that many people believe is harmful to the environment and public health.
Julia Bonds was the last resident in Marfork Hallow, West Virginia, a small coal-mining town where her family lived for six generations. When she was growing up her father used a pick and shovel to extract coal from the Appalachian Mountains, but no more. She says the home in Marfork Hollow, a valley in between two mountains, sat under a huge earthen dam that filled with waste from a new coal mining practice known as mountain top removal.
"They blast the tops of mountains off. It is like a layer cake with thin seams of coal," she said. "Sometimes they blast down [244 meters]. What is left over they push into narrow valleys where the headwaters of life-giving streams start, and they cover these streams up."
Toxic contaminants like arsenic, mercury and lead in the mining waste seep into the ground water. Julia Bonds says residents are also assaulted by coal dust over which they have no control.
"They have the [company] facilities so close to people's homes, close to our schools elementary schools, high schools, that you can not escape the dust. You cannot go outside. And you are a captive in your own home. We have our life savings in those homes," she said "So, first they damage our homes. Then from the lack of vegetation and trees the valley fills when we have rain events and we suffer extensive flooding. I have watched a lot of my neighbor's homes, their life possessions washed away in devastating floods."
Last year Julia Bonds had had enough. She moved from Marfork Hollow to a nearby town and began to fight the coal company in the region, the fifth largest coal producer in the United States: Massy Energy.
"I had to do something. I saw the future for our children. I saw their future being destroyed," she said. "We're using up all the coal, all the oil and in the process we are polluting their land, their air and their water. We are literally using all our children's nature resources and leaving them a mess to clean up, and they will never be able to clean up this mess."
Julia Bonds heads a local activist group called Coal River Mountain Watch, which monitors the mining operations of Massy Energy. The company was once shut down for violating environmental laws. Ms. Bonds says she recognizes that people in the poor Appalachian region depend on coal extraction for their livelihoods. Some of her neighbors believe her protest is threatening their jobs.
"Of course that makes me feel very badly because we need to educate our people that these coal companies rule [their lives] and have ruled [their lives]," she said. "They have conspired with the political figures in West Virginia to keep economic development out of West Virginia so that we would have to rely on coal. That [coal] is our master. They have taken away our choices. So that makes people more reliant on coal and on an industry that has shown indifference and disregard for the people of Appalachia."
In a legal action with huge implications for the region, a federal court recently reversed an earlier lower-court ruling which had banned mountain top removal. While Julia Bonds considers this a major setback, Coal River Mountain Watch is organizing grassroots groups to challenge the court's action and to raise public awareness of the issue.
"We've decided that in order to protect our homes in Appalachia and in order to protect all of America's streams and all of America's children that we are going on tour this summer on tour to expose this environmentally insane way of mining coal to the rest of America. We are working on that program now," she said.
Julia Bonds says she will use the $125,000 Goldman prize to sponsor programs of environmental justice in communities like her own. She will also use the money to pay off the mortgage on her new home and hopes never have to move from this region of West Virginia.