Julia 'Judy' Bonds, 58, dies; outspoken foe of mountaintop strip mining

Julia Bonds
Julia Bonds
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 11:28 PM

Julia "Judy" Bonds, the spitfire daughter of a West Virginia coal miner who worked as a Pizza Hut waitress before she became, in midlife, a leading voice of the grass-roots resistance to mountaintop strip mining, died Jan. 3 of cancer at a hospital in Charleston, W.Va. She was 58.

Ms. Bonds was one of the most visible and outspoken activists against what is sometimes called "mountaintop removal," a mining practice peculiar to Appalachia in which peaks are sheared off with explosives to expose the coal seams below.

A coalfields native who scraped by working in restaurants and convenience stores, Ms. Bonds was equivocal about the risks of mining until the 1990s, when the A.T. Massey Coal Co. arrived in Marfork hollow, one of the narrow, green valleys that wind through the Appalachian Mountains in southern West Virginia.

Ms. Bonds lived most of her life in that hollow, as did generations of her family before her. In childhood, she had come to know its fishing spots and swimming holes; later, as a young single mother, she had raised her daughter in Marfork.

"There is nothing like being in the hollows," she once told the Los Angeles Times. "You feel snuggled. You feel safe. It seems like God has his arms around you."

But when Massey Energy Co., as it is now known, began blasting, the air became filled with dust and cacophony, and families began moving out. Ms. Bonds refused to go. Marfork was home.

Then her 6-year-old grandson - who, like other children in the hollow, had developed a case of asthma that couldn't be ignored - asked her a question: "What's wrong with these fish?"

He was standing in the local creek, holding fistfuls of dead fish, with more floating belly-up around his ankles.

"I knew something was very, very wrong," Ms. Bonds told Sierra magazine. "So I began to open my eyes and pay attention."

She discovered that Marfork was one of many West Virginia hollows dealing with the effects of mountaintop mining, which was developed in the 1970s but whose use began accelerating about two decades ago.

And she learned that Massey had planned a dam farther up Marfork hollow - an impoundment that would hold millions of gallons of coal sludge. Her family would be in danger if the dam failed, and such dams had failed before - including in 1972 at Buffalo Creek, W.Va., where 125 people were killed in the toxic flood.

When she heard her grandson concocting escape plans in the event of a dam break, Ms. Bonds - the last holdout in Marfork - knew that it was time to move and time to call attention to the threats of mountaintop mining to clean air, clean water and the Appalachian way of life.

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