With the Nobel Peace Prize going on Friday to two of the women I most admire on the international stage,Yemen's Tawakkol Karman and Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge a home-grown hero - Maria Gunnoe, a resident of West Virginia who leads the attack on mountain-top removal coal mining, a practice that poses dire consequences not just to the environment but to the very existence of the people who live in its shadow.
As I write this post, an instrumental folk station I created on Pandora Radio delivers tune after heartbreaking tune from Appalachia, an incessant reminder of the invaluable role that this region has played in the formation of our national identity. Ironic, then, that corporate interests would augment their assault on civilizations abroad with attacks on what could rightly be called one of the keystones of the American spirit. “They are blowing up my homeland,” says Gunnoe, not one to mince words.
The daughter, granddaughter and sister of coal miners, Gunnoe works for OVEC (Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition) and in 2009 received the Goldman Environmental Prize, a Nobel equivalent in the field of grassroots activism. On September 30th, she and Bo Webb, another leading mover-and-shaker, testified before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. The two were in fact the only coalfield-residing witnesses to present at the hearing, the title of which made plain its bias - "Jobs at Risk: Community Impacts of the Obama Administration’s Effort to Rewrite the Stream Buffer Zone Rule."
"The coal industry obviously wants to bury and pollute all of our water and all of who we are, for temporary jobs," said Gunnoe, at the hearing. "Jobs in surface mining are dependent on blowing up the next mountain and burying the next stream . . . How could anyone say that these temporary jobs is worth the permanent displacement of our people and the destruction of their waters, mountains and culture?"
Later: "My nephew reminds me of what surface mining looks like from a child's eyes. As we were driving through our community he looks up and says, 'Aunt Sissy, what is wrong with these people? Don't they know we live down here?' I had to be honest with him and say, 'Yes, they know. They just simply don't care."
You can view the testimonies on the sub-committee's website, clicking to 99:20 for Webb's testimony, and 106:18 for Gunnoe's.
Interestingly, Mr. Webb drew a link between the apparent congressional appetite for environmental catastrophes and its recent trend towards curtailing a woman's right to reproductive freedom.
"Statistical research on Appalachian birth defects has found that a woman pregnant has a 42% greater chance of a baby born with birth defects than a pregnant woman living in a non mountaintop removal community," he said. " . . . If that does not get your attention, then you have sold your very heart and soul. Your pro life claim is no longer credible; it's false, and transparent. You stand on your bloody pulpit claiming to be pro life, yet allow our babies to be poisoned, disregarded like yesterdays garbage! A dog has more rights and protection than an unborn baby in a mountaintop removal community!"
Gunnoe made a similar observation in a recent Op-Ed for The Charleston Gazette, entitled "Where’s the church in this disaster?"
"It would seem that children in the womb are of great concern," she says. "But apparently that concern extends only to not killing the child outright. Insidious damage, disease and life-long problems seem not to matter, at least not enough for them to speak out. Could it be that their anti-abortion stance is really less about the health and well being of infants and children than about hatred of women?"
A rhetorical question if ever I heard one.
Companions of the Garden