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Miner's daughter fought 'mountaintop removal'

By Emma Brown
Thursday, January 6, 2011; B05

Julia "Judy" Bonds, the strong-willed 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 associated with Appalachia in which peaks are sheared off with explosives to expose the coal seams below.

A coal fields native who scraped by working in restaurants and convenience stores, Ms. Bonds was equivocal about the environmental 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 asthma - asked her a question: "What's wrong with these fish?"

He was standing in a 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 to call attention to the threats of mountaintop mining to clean air, clean water and the Appalachian way of life.

She volunteered with and then became 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 in April at its underground Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 West Virginia miners - was frequently targeted by Ms. Bonds. 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: 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,' " 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 believed 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 Ms. Bonds's longtime ally. "She personified that story at great personal risk."

Ms. Bonds was earning $12,000 a year 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 coal fields, mountaintop removal has in recent years become the subject of an environmental and public health controversy.

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. In October, more than 100 people were arrested at the White House during a protest against the practice.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency,from 1985 to 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 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, or 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 their roots run deep. It's hard to move them."

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