For the past five years, a true coal miner’s daughter has dedicated her life to fighting the industry that once provided her family’s livelihood. The courageous Maria Gunnoe won’t rest until she saves her land in Boone County and surrounding West Virginia communities from the ravages of mountaintop removal mining. Gunnoe’s roots in the coal belt date back to the early 1800s. Coming from a long line of coal miners, her grandfather purchased land tucked away in a small hollow of West Virginia. Today, Gunnoe’s land sits just below a 1,200-acre mountaintop removal site, and her house is immediately below a 10-story valley fill with two toxic slurry ponds that hold mine runoff. Gunnoe’s property has been flooded seven times with coal sludge.
As King Coal continues its assault on the Appalachian Mountains—over 500 have been blown up to date—Gunnoe and her fellow community organizers at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) have forged a brave grassroots campaign to save what’s sacred. In 2007 OVEC challenged Jupiter Holdings’ Boone County mountaintop removal permits in federal court. Before a scheduled hearing, a large group of miners showed up and harassed Gunnoe and her neighbors as they planned their testimony. After the threats, Gunnoe’s neighbors decided not to go before the judge. So Gunnoe testified alone. As a result, Judge Robert Chambers ruled in favor of OVEC and issued an injunction.
This past April, Gunnoe was given worldwide recognition for her efforts with the Goldman Environmental Prize. The prestigious award, which is only given to one person on each of the six inhabited continental regions, has given her a global platform to help save what is left of her precious Appalachians for future generations.
Since the political shift earlier this year, have you found more reason to be optimistic?
I’m optimistic because of the end of the Bush Administration. During that time we felt like we were being shoved aside and our opinions didn’t matter. With the new administration we at least feel like we have more of a voice in the process. Recently some mining permits have been stopped. That’s substantial, because we’ve gone from a rubberstamping EPA to one that’s reviewing permits and actually looking into their community impact. For me, this is all about saving our land and resources for our children.
With the attention from the Goldman Prize, have more people started to understand the severity of what is happening in Appalachia?
People across the country are finally becoming more aware of what’s on the other end of their energy luxuries. We are realizing what’s on the other end of that light switch. In today’s world, turning on a light means mountains blow up. That’s not acceptable when we have renewable forms of energy that can create permanent jobs. We need to start digging into that reality instead of the landscape.
Is this issue still causing divisive tensions in your local community?
You’d be amazed at the number of OVEC members who are retired union miners. Some are our most outspoken members. It’s because they are living in the hell that mountaintop removal is creating. These retired miners have to put up with coal dust being thrown in their faces all day from the blasts around their homes. These are people who feel betrayed by an industry they spent their lives serving.
What additional resources have come from winning the Goldman Prize?
It has given me amazing global resources. I can’t keep up with the calls I’ve been getting. The demand for information about mountaintop removal is coming from everywhere. People are finally starting to realize how they are connected to this issue. Coal is a global issue. It starts here in my backyard, but it travels all over the world. As parents and grandparents we need to be responsible for what we hand down to our kids, and right now we’re handing them a world of polluted water and air, without a plan to sustain the modern technology that we’ve created.
Where does your work go from here?
My work has turned to creating green jobs in this community. I will never stop fighting mountaintop removal until it ceases to exist. There’s a saying, “If there be war, let it be in my time. Let my kids live in peace.” The way the future is looking for my kids is not acceptable. Their air, water, and land are being sacrificed. I want to build a sustainable West Virginia. We have opportunities for renewable energy that are being stolen from us right now. We have ridges that are wind-viable that will supply jobs forever. As long as the sun shines and the wind blows, those jobs will be there.
Music on the Mountaintop, Boone, N.C.
A lot of festivals throw in a few eco-friendly initiatives for good PR measure. But the goal of Music on the Mountaintop is to provide something sustainable for its host community in the small High Country town of Boone, N.C. The event features a high-profile roster of music, this year including mandolin master Sam Bush, jam troubadour Keller Williams, Acoustic Syndicate, Steep Canyon Rangers, and Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band.
Amazingly, the festival, which takes place on August 29, was started last year as a school project by recent Appalachian State University graduate James Hunt. His assignment was to create a business plan for an entrepreneurship class. Hunt saw a void in large-scale music production in Boone, so he mapped out a plan to bring the area a festival of its own. Unwilling to let the idea sit dormant in a class paper, he formed his own company and moved forward. Last year the inaugural event drew 2,500 people.
As an avid outdoor enthusiast, Hunt didn’t want to see the festival become a high-impact burden on Boone, but rather something the community could fully get behind. In addition to hosting the music on a completely solar powered stage, Hunt gives a huge chunk of his proceeds to local and regional environmental nonprofits. This year he plans to help the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy, which has a plan to outfit city buildings in Boone with solar panels.
“Hopefully I can cut them a check for $20,000 the day after the festival,” says Hunt. “I want to make the town more sustainable and make the environmental impact just as important as the music.”
BEST NEW ENVIRONMENTAL ORGANIZATION:
Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards
Tired of watching their Southwestern Virginia communities ravaged by strip mines and choked by the polluted air of coal-fired power plants, this group of simple mountain folk decided to take on the Commonwealth’s biggest industries in the name of preserving their land. For the past few years, the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) have waged a relentless ground campaign against Dominion Power and their plans to build a 585-megawatt coal-fired power plant near the town of St. Paul in Wise County. While partner groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club are handling the legal side of these fights, SAMS is going door to door rallying neighbors and speaking up at town hall meetings.
One of their biggest victories came earlier this spring when the EPA pressured the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to suspend A&G Coal’s valley fill permit at Ison Rock Ridge. SAMS members traveled to Washington to meet with the EPA, and the federal agency ultimately put the brakes on the proposed 1,300-acre mountaintop removal site, citing concerns about potential impacts in the Powell River Watershed.
GREENEST REGIONAL MUSICIAN:
West Virginia native Kathy Mattea took the country charts by storm in the 1980s with a Grammy Award, more than a dozen top 10 hits, and a handful of number-one singles. These days, though, she is more of a folk activist than a country star. Mattea is using her influence to help preserve her Appalachian homeland. Following up her 2008 album, Coal, Mattea recently helped form Music Saves Mountains, a coalition of country music stars—including Emmylou Harris, Big Kenny Alpin, and Sheryl Crow—banding together in a campaign against mountaintop removal mining. Last month she also headlined the first annual Mountain Aid—a new festival in North Carolina helping to create a clean energy future in the Southern Appalachians.
“Mountaintop removal is the civil rights issue of our time,” says Mattea. “Giving mountain communities a voice is something I can do.”
Mattea takes her voice beyond the stage, lobbying the Governor’s office and state legislature to end strip mining in Tennessee where she lives.
“I don’t want to be a celebrity on the sidelines pointing a finger and screaming,” she says.
GREENEST FITNESS TREND:
Next time you head out for a jog on your favorite trail or neighborhood sidewalk, bring a bag and help keep the route litter-free. That’s the idea behind Eco-Running, a growing trend among avid runners who want to incorporate environmentalism into their exercise. The practice of running and picking up trash along the way was started by Samuel Huber of Milwaukee, Wis., who, through his website Eco-Runner.com, has helped spawn a nationwide network of fellow conservation-minded striders who even bring bags to races to set an example when a personal-best performance is not essential. “I believe the environment around us makes running what it is,” Huber explained.
GREENEST REGIONAL RACES:
Kiawah Island Marathon and New River 50K Trail Race
With all of the paper cups and unnecessary schwag, most races leave an eco footprint that lasts long after the finish line. Fortunately a few races in the region are doing their part to become more environmentally friendly. On the road, the Kiawah Island Marathon in South Carolina has banned plastic bags and started a bring-your-own water bottle program with easily reached refillable water stations. The scenic marathon on December 12 also has a shoe recycling program and a compost program, which last year collected 660 pounds of fruit.
On the trails, the New River 50K is also setting an example of low-impact sustainability on the regional race scene. Race director and world-class ultra-runner Annette Bednosky discourages disposable materials at the event, which forces racers to bring their own handheld water bottles. With what Bednosky does supply in amenities, she enforces the local 100-mile rule, which means food and supplies must come from within 100 miles of the course start.
GREENEST NEW RESTAURANT:
Founding Farmers, Washington, D.C.
A farm-fresh meal in downtown D.C.? That’s the concept behind this new restaurant that only serves food from family farms. The menu at Founding Farmers changes constantly based on what’s available from the network of predominantly local and regional sustainable farms that supply the guaranteed farm-to-table meals. It is also the first restaurant in D.C. and the first full-service, upscale-casual restaurant in the entire U.S. to receive LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Five More Green Restaurants
R.Thomas, Atlanta, Ga.
24-hour funky grill serving “real food” with plenty of organic veg options and guaranteed free-range meats.
Harvest Table, Meadowview, Va.
If the locals can’t grow it, the Harvest Table won’t serve it. The owners of this delicious restaurant in Southwest Virginia won’t let their profits benefit anyone not part of the local economy.
Rosetta’s Kitchen, Asheville, N.C.
Tasty soul food done vegetarian and vegan style. Dig on the Peanut Butter Baked Tofu.
Revolutionary Soup, Charlottesville, Va.
An amazing menu of homemade soups and the best representation of Central Virginia’s local food scene with Polyface meats and Twin Oaks Tofu.
Tupelos World Café, Boone, N.C.
Formerly Angelica’s, Tupelos could turn any vegetarian doubter into a fast convert with favorites like the Avocado Tempeh Melt.
GREENEST COLLEGE TREND:
Self-Imposed Renewable Energy Tax
College students from around the Southeast are requesting a moderate tuition bump in the name of energy conservation. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education has a list of colleges and universities that have successfully had their student bodies vote for a small annual price increase to purchase renewable energy or fund renewable energy and conservation projects on campus. Students at Middle Tennessee State University and Tennessee Technological University were happy to accept an $8 per semester fee increase to purchase 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources such as solar and wind power. Students at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., pay $5 a semester to implement on-campus renewable projects like a solar thermal water heating system for the student union. Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C., became the first school to convert to 100-percent green power through renewable energy credits with an $11-per-semester increase. Other participating Southern schools include Virginia’s College of William and Mary, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.
GREATEST APPALACHIAN CELEBRITY INVASION:
Robert Duvall & Ashley Judd
Earlier this year, two accomplished actors spoke out for land preservation in the South. In February, Ashley Judd, a native of Ashland, Ky., decried mountaintop removal at a rally held by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
“Mountaintop removal coal mining is devouring vast acreages of irreplaceable hardwood forests, filling our sacred hollows, burying precious headwater streams, and eliminating wildlife habitat,” said Judd.
Then in May, Robert Duvall joined the fight against plans to build a Wal-Mart Supercenter near Virginia’s Wilderness Civil War battlefield. Despite Duvall’s conservative leanings, he supports “chasing out” the giant retailer from hallowed ground.
This part of North Carolina’s Research Triangle gets this year’s nod for Greenest Town for continually setting a national example in the local food movement. The urban area is surrounded by more than 100 small family farms that service over a dozen farmer’s markets, including the 30-year-old Carrboro Farmer’s Market, which runs on Saturdays year-round and only offers food and crafts that come from within a 50-mile radius. Last fall the town’s Urban Farm Tour showcased residents who are growing vegetables, keeping bees, and even raising chickens in local neighborhoods to produce their own healthy food. •