Judy Bonds (center) with the other winners of the prestigious Goldman Prize -
one from each inhabited continent. The winner from South America could not be
there because she was unable to get a visa to get in the U.S. - she'd been
arrested in the course of her activism.
WV Activist Wins Global Environmental Award
by Peter SlavinSpecial to The Washington Post, June 9, 2003
At a May stockholders meeting of one of the nations
largest coal companies, one-time convenience store clerk and Pizza Hut waitress
Julia Bonds rose and gave its CEO a dressing-down. Facing Massey Energy Co.
chief Don Blankenship at the nearby podium, she accused Masseys mining
operations of trampling on the people and environment of southern West Virginia.
"When it rains, Appalachian children go to bed fully
clothed," she said, as Blankenship stood motionless and expressionless.
"They lie sleepless and traumatized, ready to evacuate their homes in case
of flooding from your strip mines."
As her 12-year-old grandson lies in bed, she went on, he
"plans escape routes in case one of your many toxic waste dams fails."
Bonds, 50, is a coal miners daughter. Until 2 1/2 years
ago, her family had lived for nine generations starting not long after the
Revolutionary War in and around Marfork Hollow near the Big Coal River,
about 40 miles south of Charleston. But in 2001 they moved away, saying Masseys
round-the-clock mining had made life there impossible.
Since then, Bonds, who goes by the nickname Judy, has thrown
herself more than ever into a struggle being waged by several thousand West
Virginians to save their communities and the mountains themselves from what they
see as the relentless assault of coal companies.
Bonds has been in the thick of fights over coal company
blasting that sends small boulders crashing into homes, over collisions between
cars and overloaded coal trucks barreling along narrow mountain roads, and over
dams holding back billions of gallons of coal waste near schools. But even in
West Virginia, few knew her name.
That changed in April, when Bonds received the $125,000
Goldman Prize, the worlds premier award for grass-roots environmental
The award recognized Bondss work opposing
"mountaintop removal" a growing form of strip mining that involves
blowing the tops off mountains to get at coal deposits beneath, while millions
of tons of rubble are dumped into valleys below, burying streams. Bonds calls it
Some towns near these stupendous operations have been
abandoned, and the damage to forests, wildlife and water has environmentalists
up in arms. The battle to halt mountaintop removal, which has centered on
whether clogging waterways with mining debris violates the federal Clean Water
Act, is being waged in the federal courts and in Congress. The Bush
administration, determined to maintain coal as a key energy source, rewrote the
Clean Water Acts rules to make mountaintop removal legal by allowing mining
waste to be dumped into waterways.
Her national award "speaks volumes for the stereotype of
hillbillies," says Bonds, who proudly calls herself one. Although she makes
only $13,800 a year as organizer for a small community group called Coal River
Mountain Watch, she is donating $49,000 of the prize to her group and its
Her determination has inspired others. "Shes very
fierce and passionate, and it comes straight from her heart Thats
powerful," says Janet Fout of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
Bonds is "indefatigable," says former independent
gubernatorial candidate and novelist Denise Giardina. "She does not give
Bondss energy and sense of urgency prompt "others to
do more than they really want to do," says Bill McCabe, who works with
coalfield citizens groups.
The president of the West Virginia Coal Association has
surprisingly kind words about her. Bonds is "very devoted to her
cause," says William Raney. But, he says, the real environmentalists are
coal company personnel who minimize damage from mining operations and later
reclaim the land.
West Virginias major political figures, who rarely
criticize the powerful coal industry and generally side with it on mountaintop
removal, have been silent on the subject of Bondss award. She says neither
the governor nor any member of Congress has congratulated or even mentioned her.
Asked about her, three top officeholders declined to say
anything of substance. Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), said in a statement,
"Regardless of where you stand on the issue of coal mining, Judy Bonds
represents the courage and conviction of the people of Appalachia."
West Virginians who oppose the coal companies say
intimidation still goes on in the coalfields, but Bonds, a friendly but
no-nonsense sort, is regarded as fearless. She is credited with inspiring other
ordinary people to join the protests, though some who have crossed the coal
companies say they have been followed, run off the road, found their car windows
smashed and received death threats.
Patty Sebok, a miners wife who had never spoken in public,
says Bonds told her if she wanted something done about overweight coal trucks,
she had to act. Sebok testified before the legislature and later went to work
for Coal River Mountain Watch.
Bonds carries a remarkable knowledge of the industry in her
head and turns almost every conversation back to coal mining.
A friend, environmentalist Vivian Stockman, says Bonds is
driven by love of the land, reverence for Gods creation and fury at what coal
companies are doing which Bonds calls "rape and take."
Her coalfield roots give Bonds particular credibility. She
grew up poor, one of six children. She remembers her mother and older sister
"used to pick up lumps of coal that fell off trains into Marfork to keep us
Her father retired from the mines at 65 and three months
later was dead of coal-dust-induced black lung disease. Her mother admired
Mother Jones, the United Mine Workers organizer a century ago who became a
legendary crusader for miners rights.
This month, Bonds and other coalfield residents will begin
touring the country to promote their campaign against mountaintop removal and to
build support for a bill in Congress that would restore the prohibition against
dumping mine waste in waterways. Coal River Mountain Watch and Bonds are also
working with other groups on new court challenges against mountaintop removal
under the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Two earlier legal challenges to mountaintop removal succeeded
in federal district court but were overturned on appeal, and the Bush
administration recently signaled its intent to abandon a central environmental
curb on such mining.
But Bonds is undaunted. The fight, she says, is "only
B 2003 The Washington Post Co. Used with
Editors Note: In the 14 years since the Goldman
Foundation started giving this award, the award winners have always met with the
head of the Environmental Protection Agency except for this year.
Thats right, the EPA refused to meet with Judy! Christie Whitman must not
have been up to answering questions about mountaintop removal.