Climate Hero: Maria Gunnoe

Maria Gunnoe. Image Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize.

Climate Hero: Maria Gunnoe

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

In the heart of Appalachia, where coal mining’s influence reigns supreme, one remarkable woman stood up against the destructive industry, ultimately winning in court for her people and the wilderness she calls home.

Maria Gunnoe, a Cherokee native and lifelong resident of the Appalachia Mountains, didn't identify as an environmental activist until the threat of mountaintop removal threatened to obliterate the cherished region her family had lived in for generations.

Appalachia is known for its Blue Ridge Mountains. Image Credit: Envato Creative Commons

A deep connection to Appalachia

Maria's journey to becoming a climate hero is rooted in her childhood, where she and her three brothers were instilled with a profound respect for nature. Their ancestors had escaped the forced relocation of Cherokee tribes in the 1800s by settling in the secluded hollows of Appalachia.

Her grandparents emphasized that the land was sacred, a lifeline during times of extreme poverty when they relied on the mountains for resources to feed and heal their family. Yet, the area became under siege from the destructive force of mountaintop removal, causing irreparable harm to their ecosystem and contaminating water sources for millions of inhabitants and wildlife.

The poisonous act of mountaintop removal

Mountaintop removal involves stripping the tops of mountains to access coal seams, drastically reducing the need for workers compared to traditional coal mining. This process relies on the detonation of millions of pounds of explosives, which shatter the mountaintops and leave behind soil and debris that are callously dumped into nearby valleys.

The US Environmental Protection Agency chillingly calls these "valley fills." These valley fills have buried over 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams, poisoning countless more with toxic elements like lead and arsenites.

Large-scale mountaintop removal mining operation in the Kentucky Appalachian Mountains. Image Credit: Wiki Creative Commons

An explosion ignites environmental activism

Maria’s wake-up call to environmental activism began with a  1,200-acre explosion above her home, followed by a valley fill that unleashed catastrophic floods filled with toxic water. In response, she joined forces with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), an organization dedicated to raising awareness about the environmental perils of mountaintop removal.

With unwavering determination, Maria organized community meetings and activism training sessions, establishing neighborhood groups to monitor and report illegal activities by coal companies. She inspired others to join the fight against the devastation unfolding in their backyard.

Taking the Army Corps of Engineers to court

OVEC and Maria achieved a significant milestone when they won a federal lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers. This victory led to the repeal of mountaintop removal permits due to inadequate environmental considerations.

However, the Army Corps disregarded this decision, granting permits for new valley fills above Gunnoe's community. Maria, standing alone but resolute, appeared before a judge and secured an injunction to halt the construction

Maria Gunnoe standing amongst environmentally-devastating mountaintop removal. Image Credit: The Goldman Environmental Prize.

The cost of courage

Maria's crusade for the environment was not without its trials. She faced harassment, threats, and even the need to hire round-the-clock security guards. Yet, her commitment remained unshaken as she advocated for the federal Clean Water Protection Act, striving for stronger environmental laws to regulate mountaintop removal.

A vision for a sustainable future

Despite the dangers, Maria continues to fight for the environment,  envisioning a world where renewable energy can power the nation without sacrificing the people and culture of the Appalachians. She implores society to understand that every time a switch is flipped, we may be unwittingly contributing to the destruction of water, air, and land.

For her work, Maria has won numerous awards, including The Goldman Environmental Prize in 2009. She has also been featured in several documentary films shedding light on the devastation of mountaintop removal, such as Burning the Future: Coal in America, Mountaintop Removal, and The Last Mountain.

By raising awareness, inspiring change, and challenging the status quo, Maria Gunnoe has demonstrated that individuals can make a profound impact in the battle to protect our environment. Her story is a powerful reminder that we all have a role to play in safeguarding our planet for future generations.

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