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

Julia Bonds
Julia Bonds

She became a volunteer with and then executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch, a local grass-roots group. She taught herself how to challenge the mining companies' federal and state permit applications.

Embracing her hillbilly identity, she shrugged off the argument that rural people needed the coal industry's jobs.

"If coal is so good for us hillbillies," she said at a 2008 Appalachian Studies Association conference, "then why are we so poor?"

Massey - the subject of scrutiny after an explosion at its underground Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 West Virginia miners in April - was a frequent target of Ms. Bonds's. She confronted coal industry executives, organized marches, lobbied at the West Virginia statehouse and in Washington and traveled the country talking to young people.

Her message was consistent: The health and safety of Appalachia's poor were being sacrificed for the profits of energy companies.

"We're a colony here, and the coal companies rule," the writer Michael Shnayerson quotes her as saying in his 2008 book, "Coal River." "We can complain all we want, but those complaints are just swept aside in the name of progress and jobs. It's like we're selling our children's feet to buy shoes."

She stood her ground despite insults and threats from neighbors and coal workers, who felt their livelihoods were threatened by her forthrightness and her rage. At a protest against Massey last year, a woman clad in an orange-striped miner's shirt slapped Ms. Bonds while other Massey supporters cheered in approval.

"Judy always insisted that the story of coal and mountaintop removal was a human story, a human rights story," said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign and a longtime ally of Ms. Bonds's. "She personified that story at great personal risk."

Ms. Bonds was earning $12,000 a year at her job as an activist when, in 2003, she was awarded the prestigious $125,000 Goldman Environmental Prize. After paying for her grandson's braces, helping her daughter buy a car and paying off the family's mortgage, Ms. Bonds donated nearly $50,000 to Coal River Mountain Watch - an amount equal to the organization's annual budget.

Once little known outside the coalfields, mountaintop removal has in recent years become the subject of environmental and public health controversy with a national profile.

A plotline in one of the most celebrated novels of 2010, Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom," tells the story of a hardscrabble West Virginia community uprooted by a mountaintop removal project. Last October, more than 100 people were arrested at the White House during a protest against mountaintop removal.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, between 1985 and 2001, debris scraped from hundreds of thousands of acres choked more than 700 miles of streams. Under President Obama, the EPA has sought to restrict new permits for the practice and tighten safeguards for natural resources

Such recognition of the problems related to mountaintop removal is "due in no small part," Hitt said, "to the leadership and the sacrifice of Judy Bonds."

Julia Belle Thompson was born Aug. 27, 1952, at the family home in the Birch Hollow part of what is now called Marfork. When Ms. Bonds was growing up, the place was better known as Packsville, said Ms. Bond's daughter, Lisa Henderson.

Ms. Bonds was one of eight children, two of whom died at birth. Her father retired from working in underground coal mines at 65 and died several months later of pneumoconiosis, better known as black lung disease.

Besides her daughter, of Rock Creek, W. Va., survivors include a brother, three sisters and a grandson.

In 2007, Ms. Bonds pointed out a purple-flowered plant to a visiting reporter. "That's the ironweed," she said. "They say they're a symbol for Appalachian women. They're pretty. And they're roots run deep. It's hard to move them."

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