Mountain Memories: Interview with Judy Bonds

West Virginia activist Judy Bonds died of cancer this week. Before she died, she gave this interview about fighting to save her home from mountaintop removal coal mining.
Judy Bonds, portrait by Robert Shetterly

"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."

Portrait by Robert Shetterly, part of his acclaimed series, Americans Who Tell the Truth.

In October 2009, I spent a Saturday afternoon talking with Julia "Judy" Bonds at her house along the Coal River in Boone County, W.Va. as part of an oral history project called "Radical Roots: Cultural and Political Resistance in the Appalachian South." A daughter, granddaughter, sister, and ex-wife of coal miners, Bonds—who was diagnosed with cancer last summer and died this week—spent the last decade fighting against a highly destructive form of mining called mountaintop removal, which involves clear-cutting native hardwood forests, using dynamite to blast away the mountaintop to expose underlying coal seams, and dumping the waste into nearby valleys and streams. To date, the practice has leveled over 500 mountains and buried or polluted nearly 2,000 miles of headwater streams. "What the coal companies are doing to us and our mountains," Bonds has said, "is the best kept dirty little secret in America."

Bonds, who previously worked as a waitress and manager at Pizza Hut and for convenience stores, devoted 90 hours a week to protecting the people and mountains of Appalachia from the ravages of mountaintop removal mining. For her and her family, it was a deeply personal fight. In 2001 they became the last residents to evacuate Marfork Holler, a community that had been virtually destroyed by mountaintop removal mining. After that, her dedication and success as an activist and community organizer made her one of the nation's leading community activists confronting an industry practice she calls "strip mining on steroids."

Bonds served as director of Coal River Mountain Watch, a grassroots organization that advocates for the end of mountaintop removal. When she was not organizing demonstrations or attending public hearings, Bonds traveled extensively with the Mountaintop Removal Road Show talking about the impacts of mountaintop removal on coalfield residents, communities, and ecosystems. In 2003, she won the coveted Goldman Environmental Prize, an award informally known as the "Green Nobel." She was also the recipient of the Earthmover Award from GEO Magazine, the Emma Goldman Award from the Sierra Club, and was been featured in National Geographic, Vanity Fair, and Newsweek.

 Kirkland: Tell me about growing up in the Coal River Valley.

We talk in human, living parts—the mouth and head of the holler, the spine or backbone of the mountain, the finger ridge. We speak the language of a living, breathing world.

Bonds: I was born in 1952 and raised a few miles down the road in Marfork. It was great growing up in that holler, the most safe, secure place you could be. We were always taking walks, talking with each other, flipping over rocks and looking for crawdads. I'd go swimming in the Coal River with no concerns. We were kind of isolated, but I think I liked that isolation, the mountains closing in on us, one on each side and one to the back. It made us feel safe.

We were the last house up in the holler, which we call the "head" of the holler. The "mouth" of the holler is what we call the entrance. You'll hear a lot of that kind of talk in Appalachia, the talk of body parts. We talk in human, living parts—the mouth, the head, the spine or backbone of the mountain, the finger ridge. We speak the language of a living, breathing world. I don't think I realized that until about 10 years ago when I became an activist.  Somebody came up and said, "You talk about your home as if it were part of your own body." And they were right, this landscape is a living, breathing part of me. I consider it something to protect, like I would my own body. That's an idea that's been passed down from generation to generation. 

Kirkland: What did coal extraction look like in Marfork when you were a child?

Bonds: Growing up in Birch Holler, there wasn't any mining taking place at that time. But understand that we had hollers and then we had sub-hollers. In Marfork, the main holler, we had a little country store, an old slate dump, some railroad tracks. There was deep mining going on and a little bit of surface mining, but the surface mining was in the form of contour highwall mining. It wasn't a great situation but it was far less invasive than mountaintop removal. One reason mountaintop removal is pushed so hard is because we've about depleted all the easy coal to get, all the good coal. I could tell you that driving by a preparation plant right now. What once was beautiful black shiny coal is now gray slate-looking coal. What we're mining for now is coal my daddy would have thrown away years ago.

When I was a child the mining was benign to me. Everybody that lived on the Coal River was basically employed by the mining companies. It was just what people did. It's what my family did and what the neighbors did. We didn't see black water and fish kills in the river, and we didn't have coal dust all over everything. Up until Massey Energy moved into the holler in the '90s and started mining coal like a bunch of outlaws, the mining in Marfork wasn't in the forefront of my mind. There were still a lot of people that lived in the holler and we still had a good community.

Kirkland: How does your connection to coal inform your role as an activist?

Bonds: I know what it feels like to be around coal mining. My father and grandfather were both coal miners. My brother was a coal miner. My nephews and my ex-husband, they were all coal miners. I've got coal in my blood. That connection gives me an edge that other activists might not have. And that's the case for all the local activists here in the Coal River Valley, folks like Chuck Nelson, Maria Gunnoe, Bo Webb, and Lorelei Scarbro. We all have long histories with coal, so we absolutely know what we're talking about when we get up and speak at hearings or organize demonstrations. It doesn't work to call us knee-jerk environmentalists because we all have the proper credentials. We're forging a whole different kind of environmental movement, and it's about time. The movement should have morphed a long time ago.

Kirkland: What's different?

The social and cultural implications of environmental destruction are becoming more and more important to local people. These people are beginning to speak out because their livelihoods are at stake.

Bonds: I see it moving away from simply explaining the science, talking about ecological indicators like mayflies and stoneflies. I agree those are very important predictors, "canary in the coalmine" kinds of indicators. I support every bit of that work. But the main problem with the movement for us is that the science has been too disconnected from human culture. The social and cultural implications of environmental destruction are becoming more and more important to local people. These people are beginning to speak out because their livelihoods are at stake.

Kirkland: Using local culture as an environmental indicator, I like that. But coal producing states like West Virginia that sacrifice their natural resources for quick-fix development aren't improving the conditions for long-term sustainability. It still seems to be jobs versus environment.

Bonds: That's the way the coal industry and the EPA look at it. The industry's biggest argument now is that the EPA cares more about mayflies than it does human beings. Then you have companies like Massey pumping out commercials and putting together events that are supposedly celebrating how great they are as job producers in the state. Apparently all the EPA cares about is the "environment" and all the coal companies care about are "jobs." It's obviously not that simple. We stand up as activists because we know this conversation is about something much bigger. It's about what kind of jobs and how those jobs affect the mayflies and the people living in these mountains. We're trying to make broader connections and bring the conversation to a whole new level.

Kirkland: The injustices in the coalfields are so easy to recognize today. What were they like when you were a child?

Bonds: It doesn't matter what time in history you want to talk about, you can't live around coal and not see injustice. When I was six years old my sisters and I would take pillowcases out to the railroad tracks and walk up and down picking up lumps of coal that fell off the railroad cars. We took it home and gave it to my mother and she'd burn it in our fireplace to keep us warm. When you're a kid you don't think about those things, but now I know it was because daddy wasn't making enough money to keep the house warm.

When I was about the same age I was crazy about horses and dogs, just crazy about them. I use to get on my hands and knees and pretend to be an animal and crawl all over the floor. It hurt my knees crawling around like that, so one day I looked around the house and found some black knee pads and I put them on. After a while of playing my mom came in and said, "Judy, what are you doing?" I told her, "I'm pretending to be a horse!" She said, "Get those things off, your daddy needs those for work." When I asked her what he used them for I learned about 30-inch coal, which is when miners would crawl back in dog holes and pick at coal seams not much bigger than they were. It's like working all day under your kitchen table.

Appalachia Rising photo courtesy of Rainforest Action NetworkAppalachia Rising for a New Economy
Appalachian residents are serious about putting a stop to mountaintop removal coal mining—and building a more sustainable economy to take its place.

A few years later I found one of my daddy's paycheck stubs. It was for $15 and most had to be spent at the company store. Company stores still ruled at that time. That made it hard to have cash to buy the things you needed. It made it hard to save. I think a lot of the older miners fully knew the challenges they faced as miners at that time, the abusive working conditions and the restricted way of spending money. Even if they didn't do anything about it they at least recognized those conditions. Miners today are faced with many of those same conditions but I think they are blind to it, and many of them choose to ignore it.

When I look back on it I see how the coal companies enticed people to work for them. They'd recruit guys like my cousins to take jobs at such-and-such mine and tell them, "You guys will be able to retire here, no problem. There's 50 years of coal here. Go buy you a house, buy you a car. Get settled in." Two years later the company would hand you a pink slip and tell you they were out of coal. This is the same story happening in town after town in Appalachia. What the coal industry has created is a mono-economy. Power is the hands of a very select group of people and it stays that way because there aren't other choices for employment. That centralized power is a very dangerous thing.

Kirkland: Getting back to Marfork, tell me about your exodus from the holler.

Mountain top removal mine, photo courtesy of Sierra Club

A mountaintop removal coal mine.

Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club.

Bonds: In 1998 Marfork Coal Co. built a synthetic fuel plant, which was nothing more than a tax write-off. After they put the plant in we woke up every morning with this orange greasy stuff all over our home. It was terrible. Then we found out about the Brushy Fork Impoundment, a 9 billion gallon sludge dam sitting directly above our home. The dam's foundation was built on a honeycomb of abandoned underground mines so if it were to collapse, the slurry would blow out from every side of the mountain. Even Marfork Coal knows this. Their emergency warning plan states that in case of a dam breach, a 40-foot wall of sludge, 72 feet at its peak height, would engulf communities as far as 14 miles away. Marfork Coal is owned by Massey who is the largest coal producer in Central Appalachian and the fourth largest in the U.S. Up here we have Massey, Arch, and plenty of others, but Massey owns most of the coal deposits. They don't own the land! Just the deposits.

We decided we had to leave Marfork. We didn't want to leave, in fact we were the last ones to leave, but we had no choice.

For years we dealt with black water spills and fish kills in the river and coal dust all over everything. The dust was in my grandson's lungs and he became ill with asthma. We decided we had to leave Marfork. We didn't want to leave, in fact we were the last ones to leave, but we had no choice. For our own safety we had to. We moved here to Rock Creek, a little bit above the mining and slightly above the sludge dam, but still close enough to feel the blasting. Even now I feel them blasting at the Edwight job just over that ridge.

Kirkland: What was the catalyst for you becoming an activist?

Bonds: I don't think I chose to become an activist, it was chosen for me. The circumstances dictated that for me. I think it had to do with how much injustice I was willing to accept. My work is about recognizing injustice and pushing for its correction. If we choose not to see it, we won't be inclined to do anything about it.

I became an activist because of the fish I witnessed with my grandson in Marfork when he was six years old. One day we found ourselves standing in a river full of dead fish. So he and I started paying close attention to the river and we noticed black water spills happening almost on a weekly basis. I found out it was coming from the sludge dam just above. It wasn't just affecting us, but this was poisoning the whole town of Whitesville right below us. I know the chemicals and the heavy metals coming from this coal waste have made a lot of local people sick. There are folks in Prenter whose wells are contaminated by the coal sludge that has been injected underground by the coal companies. These people have brain tumors. They have kidney and liver cancer. These people are dying from coal sludge.

For a long time I watched the companies poison this whole area and it finally became too much. I decided something needed to be done so I called the Department of Environmental Protection hoping to find some answers. The DEP is the agency that gives out mountaintop removal mining permits, not the agency that "protects the environment" like their name suggests. They're in cahoots with the coal industry, as are all the other regulatory agencies in this state. These agencies are set up by the industry and for the industry. You might say, "Come on Judy, that's crazy." But it's not hard to get your way when you have a lot of money. Coal owns this state, there is no question about it.

Kirkland: How so?

Bonds: The schools, the politicians, and the media are all bought off by coal. Ninety-five percent of the media in West Virginia are holdings that have direct ties to coal. Big industry guys like Buck Harless, Bray Cary and Don Blankenship have all the money in the world to shape public opinion, and they are directly involved in producing the media West Virginians look at every day. The other 5 percent of the media is very, very afraid. Even the Charleston Gazette has backed off on running editorials about mountaintop removal.

This state doesn't belong to the United States of America, it belongs to King Coal. West Virginia is like a banana republic. The federal government needs to come in and take over the whole state, all the way from the dogcatcher up to Gov. Manchin.

Kirkland: Has the pro-coal agenda become more intense with the pressure put on by activists or do you see signs that they are weakening?

Bonds: If anything their agenda is becoming more aggressive. The closer we get to winning, the more hostile they are toward us. I don't know who said this but it's true: "First they laugh at you, then you face violent opposition, then you win." We're in the violent opposition phase right now and I think we've been in that phase for a while. Today we're dealing with the same conditions they were in the '20s and '30s fighting for unions, 40-hour workweeks, and livable working conditions. And you've heard of the bloody mine wars—the Matewan Massacre and the Battle of Blair Mountain. This violent opposition is here today and it is getting more aggressive.

The fact is that people want to hurt me and many of the other activists on this river. Bo Webb almost got run over by a car while we were doing a march not long ago. Larry Gibson's house has been shot at and his cabin has been burned. Maria Gunnoe's dog was shot and killed. She's installed cameras and put up a tall fence to protect herself.

Kirkland: Is it difficult not to use the same aggressive tactics used by those who oppose you?

Bonds: It's really hard. For many of us who live in local communities here in the hills and hollers of Appalachia, it's hard not to say, "Come on!" when people start threatening us and spitting on us. One of my first events as an activist was the reenactment of the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1999 where we held a 75-mile march. We were attacked the first day out, so we had to have police protection the rest of the march. I learned real quick how to deal with violence.

Kirkland: Not long after you were assaulted at that event you were handcuffed, arrested, and taken away by the police. What were you arrested for? How does it feel being arrested while fighting against injustice?

Bonds: Being arrested is difficult because it's been instilled in Americans that if someone is handcuffed and taken off by the police they must have done something "bad." Activists have that same fear, but in the end we know we are fighting for a good cause. It's a real shame to be hauled off by the police for being a concerned citizen. When I was arrested this summer at Marsh Fork Elementary it was for "impeding traffic" and "obstructing an officer." I don't get it because when the officer told me to get up, I got right up. The only reason we sat down in the street in the first place was because there was nowhere else to sit.

These kinds of arrests happen all the time in West Virginia. A few weeks ago seven kids sat in Gov. Manchin's office in protest of mountaintop removal mining on Coal River Mountain, the last mountain we have left in this valley. They were arrested the minute the governor's office closed its doors. The day before last seven other kids were arrested for lying in front of a coal truck route. They were charged a $2,000 cash-only bond for conspiracy, trespass, and impeding traffic. You see, all these activists are being arrested, taken to prison, given high bonds, and treated like criminals for speaking out against destruction and violence, but when the coal miners act the way they did at the U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers hearing a few weeks ago, when they push 80-year-old women up against the wall and scream at them, when they heckle people so that they can't participate in their First Amendment rights, when these things happen and the police do nothing about it, that tells you something about our "justice" system. Not one coal thug was arrested that at that hearing. These guys interrupted a federal hearing, and nothing was done about it.

There is a major conflict of interest taking place, and that conflict is leading people to violence. Two weeks after the demonstration at Marsh Fork a bunch of drunk coal miners came and disrupted Larry Gibson's 4th of July community picnic on Kayford Mountain. These guys were very intimidating, very threatening. They were cursing and threatening us while we had our celebration, and at one point this big shirtless man made a slashing motion across his throat and said "F--k you and your kids." There was somebody videotaping that day so we showed the tape to the police, but they didn't do anything about it. That man should have gone to jail as soon as the police saw what happened. They should have said, "Who is this guy? Let's go get him." But they wouldn't take any action until Larry pressed charges. In the end, the miner got off on a "personal recognizance" bond.

Coal River advocates Last Mountain Standing
The last intact mountain in West Virginia's Coal River Valley is slated for mountaintop removal coal mining. Local residents have other ideas: a wind farm.

Kirkland: Some critics argue it's the environmentalists who have crossed the line and started using extreme tactics. Some have used terms like "environmental terrorism" to describe the direct action against mountaintop removal. Are there grounds for making these claims?

Bonds: I've heard of the Earth Liberation Front and I've read about people burning SUVs and that sort of thing, but those aren't the kind of people fighting against mountaintop removal.

I haven't seen a single person involved in this movement get wrapped up in anything that would be called terrorism or extremism. The people involved in terrorism in this region are the coal companies and the coal miners. It's easy to use their words against them because they're the one with the explosives. They're the ones blowing up mountains. They're the ones threatening people's lives. They're the ones with blood on their hands.

Kirkland: It's been an uphill battle for you from day one. Most people don't have the stamina to face the opposition you do every day. How you stay energized?

Once you know what I know, you can't un-know it. There's no going back to "normal."

Bonds: I know it's the right thing to do. And I'm deeply religious and think God plays a big part in my work. I also see the youth of America and try to picture every child standing in that stream full of dead fish like my grandson. I know that isn't right. As I'm learning more about climate change, the consequences of not acting have become pretty clear. Once you know what I know, you can't un-know it. There's no going back to "normal." If you stop fighting against what you know is wrong, then shame on you! You may have to take a little break, but you can't quit fighting. You can't quit doing what's right. Some days are harder than others, but we do have good days around here.

Kirkland: What would you be doing if you weren't an activist?

Bonds: I'd be enjoying the mountains, forests, rivers and hollers. I'd be hiking and fishing, just being a hillbilly. I'd especially be spending more time with my family.

This interview was originally published by .


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