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Maria Gunnoe

 2012 Wallenberg Medalist Maria Gunnoe Speaks at Law School

By Lori Atherton and Penny Schreiber, Wallenberg Executive Committee
October 25, 2012

Environmental and social justice activist Maria Gunnoe—who was awarded the University of Michigan's 22nd Raoul Wallenberg Medal earlier this week—gave a lunchtime talk at the Law School on Oct. 24 in which she highlighted her efforts to fight mountaintop-removal coal mining. The event was sponsored by Michigan Law's Environmental Law Society and Women Law Students Association.

Gunnoe began her fight against environmentally devastating mountaintop-removal coal mining and valley fill operations in Appalachia in 1996. She is a lifelong resident of Bob White in Boone County, W.Va., one of the most active mountaintop-removal regions in the United States and "a good place for law students to work on environmental issues," she said. To date the practice—which she calls a "human-rights violation"—has destroyed an estimated 500 mountains and buried or polluted more than 2,000 miles of rivers and streams. Mountaintop-removal coal mining is highly mechanized, Gunnoe said, and is more profitable than traditional underground mining.

Gunnoe's family came to Boone County in the early 1800s, when her ancestors escaped the forced removal of their Cherokee peoples from Georgia and settled safely in the fertile hollows of central Appalachia. She comes from a long line of coal miners, including her Cherokee grandfather, who in 1950 purchased the land where her home stands.

In 2000, a 1,200-acre mountaintop-removal mine came to the ridge above Gunnoe's home. Today, her house sits directly below a 10-story valley fill that contains two toxic ponds of mine waste. Her property has flooded seven times since the mine opened. Most of her home was destroyed in a 2003 flood and her yard was covered in toxic coal sludge. Her well and groundwater have been contaminated by mine waste, and her family now uses bottled water for cooking and drinking.

A medical technician by training and a former waitress, Gunnoe first volunteered with local advocacy organizations and then began working for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition to educate her neighbors about the environmental dangers of mountaintop removal. She organized meetings and trained community members to read mining permits, write letters to the editor, and speak with the media. She also showed them how to organize nonviolent protests, and created neighborhood groups to monitor coal companies for illegal behavior and report toxic spills.

"You don't go up against the coal industry without a plan," Gunnoe said of her activism.

Mine managers have singled out Gunnoe as an enemy of mine workers and their jobs. She has received threats on her life, and her children frequently are harassed at school. Her daughter's dog was shot dead, wanted posters featuring her photo have appeared in local stores, and she has had to take serious measures to protect her family and property.

Gunnoe's advocacy has led to the closure of mines in the region and stricter regulations for the industry. In 2009 she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work.

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