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Americans Who Tell the Truth :: Judy Bonds

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Robert Shetterly's portrait of Judy Bonds
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“In Southern West Virginia we live in a war zone. Three and one-half million pounds of explosives are being used every day to blow up the mountains. Blasting our communities, blasting our homes, poisoning us, trying to intimidate us. I don't mind being poor. I mind being blasted and poisoned.

There ARE no jobs on a dead planet.”
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Judy Bonds
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Environmental Activist (1952—  )

The mountains of Appalachia have been home to coal miners for generations. Julia “Judy” Bonds is a woman who proudly proclaims herself to be a “hillbilly” with deep roots in the West Virginian mountains. However, this coal miner’s daughter is now battling the coal industry, trying to save the land she grew up on.

Judy Bonds is fighting 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 run the machines and set the explosives. There is no advantage, however, to living around the mining sites. Bonds grew up in Marfork Hollow, W.VA, but the destruction caused by this kind of mining forced her town to evacuate, with Bonds being the last to leave. Mountaintop removal strips huge areas of hardwood trees, increasing the threat of flooding into the towns below, and the dumping of coal waste products (or slurry) into the valleys contaminates streams. Any overflow of dams built to hold some of the waste will spill into the towns, polluting everything in it. 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.

Judy Bonds 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. Her call to activism came from her grandson on a couple of occasions. In an interview, she says, “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.”

And so, 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 makes certain she is always involved, trying to get those permits denied. Bonds was the recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2003 for her work. This prize is the equivalent of an environmental Nobel Prize. Every year six are awarded, as one person from each continent is chosen to receive it. She has a 2007 documentary film called “Mountain Top Removal” to help spread the word about the destruction of Appalachia.

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See the full set of Robert Shetterly's portraits at www.americanswhotellthetruth.org.

Tools for Teaching: see the acompanying curriculum materials with suggestions on how to use the portraits and biographies of these American truth-tellers in your classroom.
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