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Remembering Judy Bonds, a Voice Against Mountaintop Removal

judy-bonds-press-conferenceCancer took Judy Bonds, the legendary West Virginia fighter against the destruction of Appalachia's mountains, early this year at 58.

Illness had forced her to stop work at Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW) in Whitesville, W.Va., the little grassroots group she helped turn into an outfit to be reckoned with, but she remained a driving force behind the Appalachia Rising demonstration last fall in Washington, D.C., "even as she grew weaker and sicker each day, she never allowed me to lose my focus," says lead organizer Bo Webb. It was a rally Judy had conceived of years ago to show those in power how many Appalachians regard mountaintop removal strip mining (blasting the tops off mountains to get at the coal and filling rivers and streams with the debris) as a curse.

She was unbending too with Mike Roselle, who has headed a remarkable campaign of civil disobedience against this draconian form of strip mining for two years in Judy’s Coal River Valley. Roselle wrote in Counterpunch that “her last words to me were to never give up the fight, and as usual, she was looking me straight in the eyes.” Roselle, a strapping 6’4”, towered over Judy’s 5’1". But listen he did.

Judy was spunky personified. I once saw her wade into a crowd of miners’ wives demonstrating in support of Massey Energy, her archenemy, and take them on, jaw to jaw. Judy could blaze with passion and she was often blunt. Most of all she was indomitable. She just kept at it, no matter the odds or danger.

Judy had worked as a waitress and convenience store clerk and had just a high school education but she proved a major strategist against MTR. She was among the first to realize the struggle against MTR  could not be won in Appalachia alone, but only by making it a national issue. That, she, and others, did. She embraced nonviolent civil disobedience as one tool  in the coal struggle and saw the importance of linking MTR, with its heavy carbon footprint, to global warming. Devoted to protecting people on Coal River, Judy was a natural leader in  the campaign for environmental justice for disadvantaged communities.

Ironically, Judy’s death came just four weeks after Don Blankenship announced his sudden retirement as Massey’s CEO. Thus, the two central antagonists in the coal wars that have raged in central Appalachia for the past decade left the stage almost together. Blankenship, the union-busting, mine-at-any-cost coal lord whose penchant for mountaintop removal made Massey an industry heavyweight, but his rules-are-made-to-be-broken attitude toward mine safety appears to have led to the two deaths at the Aracoma mine and 29 at the Upper Big Branch mine, the latter on Coal River. His legacy is dark. Bonds, his unrelenting critic (at one stockholders meeting, she dressed him down in front of his board), leaves behind a number of women who are carrying on her work.

A coal miner's daughter, Judy grew up so poor she remembered her mother and older sister "used to pick up lumps of coal that fell off trains into Marfork to keep us warm." She was raised in the adjoining hollows of Birch and Packsville and remembered the first, with its clear brooks, blue jays and doves and grove of paw paw trees, as a kind of paradise. Her family had lived in the vicinity for 10 generations, almost since the Revolutionary War.  When Massey’s mining operations forced her to move her family in 2001 from a place she so loved, she was already working at CRMW and redoubled her efforts against Massey’s abuses. Her daughter Lisa Henderson says Judy’s involuntary exile from her family home is what fueled the fire that burned within her.

Judy fought a variety of coal company abuses: blasting that propelled toxic coal dust and rocks into people’s homes, overloaded  coal trucks barreling down mountain roads and risking collisions, dams holding billions of gallons of coal waste putting nearby communities in danger. For this, she faced the hostility of many people on Coal River whose livelihoods – or whose relatives' livelihoods – depended on the coal industry. According to her daughter Lisa Henderson, Judy was mocked and "shunned by many neighbors and so-called friends [and] members of our church." Her life was threatened many times and she kept a rifle at home by the door and later put a shotgun in her room. During one rally, the wife of a Massey miner strode up and smacked Judy in the  head, reactivating an old whiplash injury.

Judy persevered somehow, year after year. She ceaselessly challenged coal permits at hearings, wrote countless  letters to the editor, organized and marched. She traveled around the country, anyplace where people wanted her to speak about what was happening to the mountains and their communities and could pay her expenses. In those places she also recruited people to the cause. She worked herself to near exhaustion at least once, and her CRMW colleagues insisted she take a month off.

She won the Goldman Prize, the Nobel of environmental awards, in 2003, but perhaps more for her efforts than her accomplishments. And about the time victories started coming – greater restrictions on blasting, a law penalizing overweight coal trucks, preventing a second coal storage silo next to a school – she saw Massey lay siege to both sides of Coal River with MTR, blowing up the very mountains around her. The wolf was at the door.

judy-bonds-mountaintopLiving under such stress, Judy started showing her age, but she did not slow down. What kept her going wasn’t just grit. It was Christian faith. She did not wear religion on her sleeve, but she read her Bible frequently and marked passages. She was a founding member of Christians for the Mountains, an Appalachian environmental group. Its co-director, Allen Johnson, remembers Judy once talked about how her faith in God sustained her in the struggle against MTR. In her speeches, he says, she invariably referred to MTR as dishonoring God. One of her favorite T-shirts warned "Stop Destroying My Mountains –God." Judy once said, "Never doubt that this is a battle between good and evil! … The earth is God's body!"

Johnson likened her to "the Biblical prophets who denounced injustice and showed the way to righteousness." When Judy started fighting Massey over a decade ago, there were just a handful of environmental groups concerned about MTR and almost no press coverage. The term "mountaintop removal" drew a blank from most people in Appalachia (partly because this mining was hidden, out of sight up in the hills), and coal companies largely did as they pleased. In West Virginia and Kentucky legislators and environmental officials let them have their way. Now "mountaintop removal" has entered the language; newspapers all over the country publish articles about it and editorials condemning it; there are more than a dozen books and documentaries about it; hundreds of young people come to Appalachia every year to join the fight and hundreds of citizen lobbyists go to Washington every spring to urge Congress to pass legislation to hamstring it. State legislatures and agencies are still missing in action when it comes to MTR, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency has finally started to clamp down.

All this is Judy’s legacy as much as any one person’s. So are all the people who have joined the movement against MTR and in a number of cases, become leaders in it. "I can’t count the number of times someone told me they got involved because they heard Judy speak, either at their university, at a rally, or in a documentary," says CRMW co-director Vernon Haltom. Traveling across the country, Judy awakened in many people a new sense of purpose, prompting some to even go to Appalachia and  become activists. She was a role model for a number of impressive women (and a few men) who have left their mark on the Appalachian struggle.

• Katie Lauer remembers "sitting on the dingy  floor of the CRMW office with a couple dozen or so young people" while Judy told them about MTR. "She was pointing at image after image with fiery eyes and her voice was booming – that little woman filled the entire room. She was captivating." Lauer went on to volunteer for Mountain Justice, a organization of young people working to defend Appalachia’s mountains from MTR,  help organize Appalachia Rising and head the Alliance for Appalachia, a network of activist groups.

• Mari-Lynn Evans followed up on her documentary films The Appalachians with a second called Coal Country after Judy implored her to make a film about MTR. "I had already started another project, but I could not get her voice out of my head," Evans says. Judy, says Evans, "had the blood memory of our ancestors and it stirred something deep inside of me." Now an Appalachian activist, Evans says, "She changed the course of my life."

• Musician and now-professor Jen Osha produced two music CDs publicizing MTR and created a website called Journey Up Coal River that, among other  things, educates teachers, students, journalists and others about the effects of such mining. Osha, who now works part-time for CRMW, calls Judy "my friend and my hero."

• Maria Gunnoe's path has been remarkably like Judy’s. After her mountain home was devastated by flooding caused by  an MTR site behind it, Gunnoe started volunteering  at CRMW. Judy helped raise money to get her back on her feet and hired her at CRMW. "She helped me to be proud of being a hillbilly, something I was taught to be ashamed of," Gunnoe says. She has been a community organizer since 2005 for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, prompting threats, harassment and her daughter’s dog to be shot dead. She won the Goldman Prize herself in 2009.

Years ago, Judy’s loss would might have been a terrible setback for this grassroots movement. But she helped to build a movement so large and vibrant that when she died, even she was no longer indispensable. That is part of her legacy too.

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