Featured Hero: Maria Gunnoe

Goldman Environmental Prize.

Featured Hero: Maria Gunnoe

Each week One Earth is proud to feature an environmental activist and hero from around the globe who is working to create a world where humanity and nature can coexist in harmony.  

Maria Gunnoe didn’t identify as an environmental activist until mountaintop removal mining threatened to destroy the home her family had for generations.

As a child, Maria and her three brothers were taught that nature was sacred. Their grandparents urged them to respect the land because in times of extreme poverty they relied on the resources from the mountains to feed and medicate their family. The Hollows in West Virginia is where coal mining families thrived for generations, before miners were traded for equipment operators. Now, mountaintop removal is destroying their ecosystem and harming water sources for millions of inhabitants.

Mountaintop removal began in the 1970’s and is a method that is increasingly being used in the Appalachian mountains. With this method, tops of mountains are removed exposing the seams of coal while reducing the number of workers required to a fraction of what traditional coal mining methods need. Millions of pounds of explosives are used to blast the mountaintop and the excess soil and debris are dumped into valleys nearby. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that mountaintop removal “valley fills” are responsible for burying more than 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams while poisoning many more.This is due to “valley fill” waste being filled with toxic elements like lead and arsenic. 

When a 1,200-acre blast happened above Gunnoe’s home, and a valley fill caused catastrophic floods containing this toxic water, she began volunteering and working with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), educating her community about the environmental dangers of mountaintop removal. She organized meetings and activism training, creating neighborhood groups to monitor and report coal companies for illegal behavior and encouraging others to get involved in the fight.

OVEC and partner groups won a federal lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers repealing mountaintop removal. Since adequate environmental protection wasn’t taken into consideration, new permits were banned from being issued. However, the Army Corps ignored the decision and granted permits to construct two new valley fills above Gunnoe’s community. OVEC challenged the permits in federal court, but Gunnoe was the sole resident who courageously showed up. The judge ruled in favor of Gunnoe and OVEC and issued an injunction, ordering a halt to the construction.

Gunnoe and a coalition of regional groups subsequently advocated for the passage of the federal Clean Water Protection Act. However, despite the victory, the decision ushered in months of harassment for Maria where she faced everything from daily threats to being run off the road. It got to the point where she had to hire round-the-clock security guards.

Maria knows we can power this country with renewable resources of energy and that a healthy life and prosperity can coexist without a need to sacrifice the people and culture. She feels that the Appalachians have made a huge sacrifice to fuel the need for energy and that most people have no idea where their electricity comes from. Maria hopes that her story will help Americans become educated and connected to their energy consumption. She wants us to know “When you flip a switch on, there is a 52% chance that you are destroying the water, air and land of where I live.”

Maria continues to work with Appalachian groups to promote viable renewable energy opportunities for the region. She has won numerous awards for her environmental activism and has appeared in several documentary films about mountaintop removal including Burning the Future: Coal in America, Mountaintop Removal, and The Last Mountain.

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