Coal Mine Laws Written in Blood: An Interview with Judy Bonds

Judy Bonds is the co-director for Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia. Bonds is a coal miner’s daughter and granddaughter, has been fighting for justice in the Appalachian coalfields since 1998, and in 2003 won the Goldman Environmental Prize.

In this interview with Toward Freedom, she talks about what inspired her to become an environmental activist, some recent examples of coal mining devastation, the lasting impacts of coal mining on communities, and what people around the world can do to help.

Frank Joseph Smecker: How long have you been the Co-Director of Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW)?

Judy Bonds: I began volunteering for CRMW in 1998 through 1999, and became a member in 2000 as an organizer. I’ve been the co-director for approximately three to three and half years. Being an activist, it all gets blurry after awhile – it’s like being in a war, like being on the frontline in battle, facing miners; exact dates become hard to remember.

FJS: What inspired you to pursue activism?

JB: Witnessing the bad and dangerous effects on my children and grandchildren – seeing the abuses the coal industry affect on the children in the area is what got me involved. When I saw my grandchild standing in a stream of dead fish at the age of six, it really pissed me off! If kids and grandkids can’t play in streams then it’s time to do something. We’re supposed to protect our children. My grandson suffered from asthma as a result of all of the coal dust in the air; the coal dust would accumulate in our home, it was just nasty. There was a sludge dam holding nine billion gallons of toxic substances right above where we lived. Once we moved away from the area my grandson’s asthma was virtually gone – 95 percent better. I also watched the March Fork stream get poisoned three miles above the intake valve for the town of Sylvester, West Virginia. If we’re poisoning our drinking water, we have to ask what kind of people are we?

It’s been determined that coal dams are a high hazard and we’re now forcing politicians to take a closer look at them, with the hope that the bins are abolished. But the problem with coal-mining laws is that they only get passed after folks have died from the effects of mining; but even then, the laws are put into place but never enforced. Unless the laws are enforced they are no good. The truth is, we’re the poorest state in the nation, and this has been going on for roughly 140 years. It’s time to put an end to this. These are mainly the reasons why I got involved.

FJS: Recently there was the Kingston spill that dumped 1.6 billion gallons of heavy-metal-laden coal ash waste over 400 acres – the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history; and there was also the intentional release of toxic substances and heavy metals into the Ocoee River of Tennessee; can you talk about the ecological devastation at the other end of coal mining and its effects within the surrounding region?

JB: The immediate ecological effect is the destruction of the watershed. We have a unique topography here; the surrounding mountains have very steep slopes where streams originate. Many of these streams are extremely delicate, only running six months out of the year. Mountain top removal and strip mining eliminates springs and headwater springs. As I said, the entire watershed and stream systems are very sensitive, and last time I looked, humans needed water. We’re seeing the destruction of entire watersheds and it all runs down hill. For example, close to where I lived, the Little March Fork was poisoned and that flowed into the larger March Fork stream and then into the Coal River. The Coal River empties into the Kanawha River and into the Ohio River and then into the Mississippi River, which empties into the ocean. The poisons that flow into the ocean then get into the atmosphere and fall back on the region through rainfall. So far 1,200 miles of streams and headwaters have been destroyed; complete watersheds have been devastated. If nothing is done to stop this, we’re looking at least double that damage in the near future.

Moreover, the beautiful creatures of the area are being threatened as well. Leaf shredders and mayflies, who are important in maintaining the health of the river ecology, are disappearing quickly. The wild boar is becoming endangered, and many of the tropical birds that arrive in the area to breed in the forest chain are disappearing as well. This area boasts the world’s most diverse deciduous forests, only the Amazon has a larger variety of tree species. When you destroy mountains you destroy forests. These mountains are very important to the northeast, as well as to North America, but especially to the northeast. And really, we need to stop valuing our forests and mountains in terms of dollars. A standing tree is worth more than one that has been felled to the ground.

Also, after a mountain is mined, the debris is pushed and dumped aside creating a "valley-fill." When valley-fills occur they create floodplains, which conduce to flooding in an area that hasn’t naturally been subjected to flooding in the past, becoming a huge issue for the nearby communities. And just so you know, all you taxpayers out there in America are paying to clean up the coal mess in Appalachia. Every time there is a spill or a flood, it comes out of your pocket. We all better realize that. In the end though, people need to understand that the [natural] environment is the top story here. Today’s youth seem to be largely disconnected from the fact that nature is very important, in fact essential to our lives. We need to reconnect our youth to our natural environments.

FJS: It would appear that most polluting mining operations occur close to or within poor and minority communities; why do you think this is so?

JB: Coal, as well as other polluting and abusive industries, always choose the poor and less educated and powerless/minority communities. The industries can control their "peons" easier that way; create a mono-economy; control the agencies, and then the industry has free reign over the powerless and poor. It is all about profit and power.

FJS: With the loss of habitat comes the loss of community, and with the former and latter compounded by abject poverty, what are the social-psychological effects of coal mining in the region, if any?

JB: My father and brother always said, "Every law ever written about coal mining was written in our blood." I’ll always remember that quote. The industry has abused and oppressed our people for 140 years. When you oppress you dehumanize. The coal industry has turned Appalachia into a third-world banana republic. Lately, CRMW issued a wind study on a nearby mountain and proposed a wind-farm that would provide not only clean renewable energy, but jobs as well. As a response, the governor here put together an energy portfolio stringently reliant upon coal. It’s awful, the leadership here has sided with coal; most have a relative in the coal industry. This divides the community greatly, like a civil war almost – we get lots of threats and intimidation. Like I said, it’s basically a warzone, there are the threats and intimidation, and then the three million pounds of explosives used to blow up the mountains. If you have an industry that’s been running amok for 140 years, you have an outlaw on your hands. They control the schools, the media, the politicians – it’s virtually a dictatorship! It’s interesting, the miners and other coal-workers who stick up for coal… it’s like the Stockholm syndrome; it’s an abusive relationship. A psychologist would have a field day down here.

FJS: How has the media responded to these issues, and to your work with CRMW?

JB: For the most part, the local media has responded with silence, and the mainstream media would rather focus on movie stars and Brittany Spears -what have you, than on issues regarding clean air, clean water, etc. The New York Times has written a few editorials on the issues here regarding coal mining, but that’s it. Basically, much of the local media is steered by Big Coal – about 95 percent of state and local media are silent or pro-coal. It’s very common for our work to be spun by the media as ‘scare tactics’ – that we’re threatening the employment of mine workers. But of the other 5 percent, one journalist stands out; Ken Ward Jr. is excellent and only his paper, The Charleston Gazette, will present a balance. And nationally, Jeff Biggers at the Huffington Post has done a tremendous job, too.

FJS: Do you see any political silver lining on the horizon, or will this ultimately be an issue resolved first and foremost by grassroots activism?

JB: This issue will have to be resolved by a groundswell of outrage on behalf of the public and activists, putting grassroots activists on the ground while putting pressure on officials, politicians, and media to force change is the immediate key to resolving the issue here. Currently we have proposed two bills: a House bill: (H.R. 1310) the Clean Water Protection Act, and a Senate bill: (S. 696) the Appalachia Restoration Act. Both bills will sharply reduce mountaintop removal coal mining, and protect clean drinking water for many of our nation’s cities. It will also protect the quality of life for Appalachian coalfield residents who face frequent catastrophic flooding and pollution or loss of drinking water as a result of mountaintop removal coal mining. But I honestly believe these bills will not be passed into law unless the politicians have the courage to do so. Mountain top removal and strip mining is as black and white an issue as it gets. I believe many politicians are looking for the courage to act appropriately, the people just need to put the pressure on them and that will provide the courage needed. So, the silver lining is the people on the ground. As far as the President’s policies go, Obama is better than Bush, but so far that isn’t good enough. But if Obama looks hard enough into his heart he’ll abolish mountaintop removal and strip mining. If he doesn’t make change then he’s justifying and validating Bush’s previous policies, and that isn’t any better than the past eight years. And the truth is, the "best" coal has already been mined, and recent USGS studies show that there is only about twenty-five years of coal left in these mountains. But the industry and politicians won’t admit this. However, West Virginian, pro-coal Congressman Rahall knows it’s true, he let it slip. In an interview on NPR, Rahall admitted: "…the state’s most productive coal seems likely that it will be exhausted in 20 years. And while coal will remain an important part of the economy, the state should emphasize green job development." My question is: What are we going to do when the coal runs out? And as we get closer to that day, coal-fired electricity is going to get more expensive folks.

FJS: What can folks do to get actively involved within the area, and for those who live outside the area?

JB: Well, currently we’re [CRMW] working on a brochure with plenty of information that will be available to anyone who requests one. But more importantly, spreading the word, writing letters to the President and to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and talking to Congress-people and Representatives about enforcing legislature to abolish mountaintop removal and strip mining will be of much help. It’s really important that the people put pressure on their Representatives and the President. Also, writing articles, commenting on written articles, and blogging definitely helps a lot. As for spreading the word, it would be helpful for folks to share with others the several ways to get plugged in, to inform and to voice their outrage. We’ve set up a website that I think will be very helpful for folks looking for ways to get involved. The site is: It’s a great site, and one can type in their zip code to find their connection to mountaintop removal and strip mining. There are also testimonials to check out as well as photographs of the destruction of the area. But really, I can’t stress enough that folks should and can get involved in any way possible.