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Scrapbook: Judy Bonds, Homespun Crusader Against Mountaintop Removal Mining, Dies

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January 07, 2011

Judy Bonds, Homespun Crusader Against Mountaintop Removal Mining, Dies

Photo courtesy of Coal River Mountain Watch

Southern Appalachia and all Americans who treasure our natural heritage lost a great champion on January 3 when Julia "Judy" Bonds died of cancer in Charleston, W.Va. She was 58.

The daughter of a coal miner and a native of the West Virginia coalfields, Bonds worked as a Pizza Hut waitress before becoming one of the country's leading grassroots activists in the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR).

"I've worked with community activists all over the world, and I know I'll never meet another person like her," says Climate Ground Zero campaign director Mike Roselle, who describes Bonds as "a mentor, friend, neighbor, and fellow soldier."

Bonds lived most of her life in Marfork Hollow in southern West Virginia, as six generations of her family had done before her, and she raised a daughter there. "There's nothing like being in the hollows," she told the Los Angeles Times several years ago. "You feel snuggled. You feel safe. It seems like God has his arms around you."

"Judy always insisted that the story of coal and mountaintop removal was a human story—a human rights story," the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign director Mary Anne Hitt told the Washington Post this week. "She personified that story at great personal risk."

At the time of her death, Bonds was the executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch.

Photo by Mark Schmerling

When the A.T. Massey Coal Company (now Massey Energy) arrived in Marfork in the 1990s, Bonds was initially ambivalent. But that changed when Massey began blasting the tops off the mountains, polluting the air and water and driving local families away.

While scraping by working in restaurants and convenience stores, she began volunteering with Coal River Mountain Watch, where she taught herself how to challenge the mining companies' permit applications.

Meanwhile, her 6-year-old grandson, along with all the other remaining children in the hollow, developed asthma due to coal dust. And the creek her family had enjoyed for generations was dying. Bonds remembers the day when her grandson stood in the creek holding fists full of dead fish, with dozens more floating belly-up all around, and asked, "What's wrong with these fish?"

In the end, Bonds and her family were the last holdouts in Marfork. But by then Massey had planned a dam further up the hollow, and the last straw came when she overheard her grandson talking about escape plans if the dam broke.

The incident drove her out of Marfork, but it kicked into overdrive her determination to fight MTR. She began working 90-hour weeks at Coal River Mountain Watch, confronting coal industry executives, organizing marches, testifying at public hearings, lobbying politicians in Charleston and Washington, D.C., and traveling the country talking to young people about MTR.

Below, the aftermath of Massey's handiwork in Marfork Hollow.

Photo courtesy of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

In 2003, while earning an annual salary of $12,000, Bonds became the North American recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize. She used part of the $125,000 award to pay off her mortgage, help her daughter buy a car, and pay for her grandson's braces, then donated the remaining $50,000 to Coal River Mountain Watch—an amount equal to its annual operating budget.

West Virginia Sierra Club organizer Bill Price remembers a walk he took with Bonds and a group of friends and supporters up Marfork Hollow toward the coal preparation plant Massey had built there. "She was adamant that we should engage in some sort of action to show Massey that they didn't own the stream up the hollow where she used to live," Price says.

The group didn't get far before they attracted the attention of Massey security guards, who pulled up and jumped out of their trucks.

"What are you doing?" one of them asked.

"Just out for a walk," Judy replied.

"Well, you know you are on Massey property," said the guard.

"No, we are not!" Judy bellowed, "And I have the paper to prove it!"

Taken aback, the guard replied, "Well, this sounds like something the legal guys will have to take up. In the meantime, be careful." And the group continued on their walk.

"Judy was always an inspiration and fearless in her actions," Price says. "She always believed that we, as a people, would overcome oppression brought by the coal industry. She knew that this movement was not about a person, or even a group of people, but about a vision. She knew that when people unite in solidarity, no force can stop them.

"We all will mourn the loss of Judy. And then we'll go out and do what she would want us to do—organize to move towards her vision."

A memorial service will be held in Beckley, W.Va., on Saturday, Jan. 15 at 2:00pm.


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