West Virginian Maria Gunnoe's backyard is nestled in the Central Appalachian mountains, home to some of the most environmentally-devastating mountain top removal mining.  Gunnoe is fighting to stop these mining practices from ruining the landscape her family and many others have lived off of for generations.  VOA's Julia Ritchey talked with Maria in Washington, D.C. about her struggle and why more Americans should care about their energy future.

Appalachian family history and traditions

Maria Gunnoe and her family have lived for five generations in Appalachian mountains of West Virginia.  Coal companies are the lifeblood of this regions' economy and many of Gunnoe's family have worked in underground coal mines. But mechanization has led to a more controversial practice environmentalists say harms the environment.

"There is a 52 percent chance that when you flip on your light switch, you're blowing up the mountains where we live at," Maria said.

Dangers of mountain top removal

Coal companies cut down the trees on the mountain before using explosives to get to the coal beneath. Leftover debris is dumped into surrounding valleys.  The industry defends the procedure, known as mountain top removal.  In 2000, Gunnoe says a coal company started blasting a ridge behind her home.

Gunnoe filmed a mountaintop removal, which covered her land in dust and debris.  She says she realized she had to stand up for the land her family uses for food, water and home grown medicines.
She says the process often results in flooding nearby and that toxic elements such as cadmium, lead and arsenic, can end up in groundwater.

Gunnoe alleges, over the years, coal workers have killed family pets as well as harassing her and her family. "They don't care about these people," she said. "And they will look at you in your own home, they will look at you and say, 'If you don't like it, you leave.'"

Defending the community

Maria was the sole resident from her community to testify in court against a coal company operating mountain top removal sites in her county. The company was ordered to halt dumping debris into new valleys.

"I feel like that I'm fighting for my children's future. I want my children to have a good life," she insist. "And in order to do that, I have to protect my rights so that they'll have the same rights."

Gunnoe was one of six recipients to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco. 

Gunnoe believes that too many Americans are still unaware of where their electricity comes from.  But, she says, by educating the public and fighting for her mountains, sustainable energy can one day flow from Appalachia just as coal has for over a century.