Natural Home Earth Mover: Julia Bonds

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Julia Bonds’s efforts to stop mountaintop removal won her a 2003 Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots activism.
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Julia Bonds’s efforts to stop mountaintop removal won her a 2003 Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots activism.

There are a thousand reasons why Julia Bonds is leading her neighbors in a war against surface, or “strip,” mining in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley. She cites the hills that are “forty shades of green,” the independent spirit of her Appalachian ancestors, the legacy of 1920s miners killed for organizing labor unions, and the memory of her coal-miner father who died of black lung disease. Driving her cause are the mountains, rivers, and narrow valleys–or hollows–where mountain folk have made homes for longer than memory.

Bonds has lived in the shadow of coal mining all her life, but that shadow became a tangible enemy in 1997 when her grandson, then six, stood knee deep in a stream full of poisoned, dead fish. “That moment opened up my eyes,” she remembers. “Until then, I was like regular Americans, ignoring environmental problems. But that day I could see everyone’s child in that stream asking, what’s wrong with the fish?”

Bonds started investigating mountaintop removal companies that tear away rock and soil to expose coal, then dump the waste into waterways–a practice that’s now legal under the Bush administration’s revised Clean Water Act. She discovered that Massey Energy was building a sludge dam to contain wastewater, rock, and toxic mining byproducts in her hollow. Incensed, she enlisted in the grassroots Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW) organization in nearby Whitesville; as community outreach coordinator she teaches people how to fight the devastation.

The daily reality of rural Appalachian life in the grip of surface coal mining is difficult to fathom: blasting that shakes houses and cracks walls, coal dust polluting the air, creeks choked with black sludge, a sludge dam above an elementary school, and the omnipresent fear that flooding in mining-eroded rivers will sweep everything away. “People ask me what it’s like to live in these hollows, and I tell them it makes us feel safe and secure like a big hug from God,” Bonds says. “But then these corporate terrorists came in and started blasting and terrorize us every day.”

Bonds had to leave her birthplace for a cleaner, safer location because her grandson developed asthma from the coal dust that sifts into every nook and cranny. “How do you tell a child his life is forfeited for corporate greed?” she asks. “I’m positive that if Americans knew what’s happening in Appalachia for their so-called ‘cheap’ energy and ‘clean’ coal, they would understand it’s our duty to be stewards of the earth and preserve it for our children.”

The problem isn’t confined to the Appalachians, she warns. Western U.S. ore mining companies are shredding mountains, too, and only when people defend the land will the decimation stop. “The coal companies are asking too much,” Bonds says. “They’re asking for these mountains and for our culture and history, our children’s future, and God’s creation. But they’re not getting it; they’re not getting it.”

To support Coal River Mountain Watch, contact (304) 854-2182; on “Moving Mountains,” a CD of Appalachian music and testimonials against surface mining.

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