“My Life is On the Line” Part One  -  by Maria Gunnoe 


from “Like Walkin’ Onto Another Planet”  Read More Stories (OVEC)



Photo:  Antrim Caskey

My name's Maria Gunnoe. I’m from Bob White on Route 85 in Boone County, West Virginia, and mountain top removal moved into my backyard in 2000. Since then, I’ve lost two access bridges, the use of my water, about five acres of land.

There’s 13 landslides between me and the toe of the landfill behind me. Each time it rains these landslides move. All depending on how much rain we get, sometimes they can move as much as five feet in one day. You know that eventually they’re gonna wash out, and when they do, I will have another major washout there at my home.


Since 2000, I’ve been flooded seven times. One time I was flooded with no rain… blue skies and just barely any clouds at all in the sky… and the stream coming through my property just came up. It came up about three feet. By the time I called the DEP [WV Department of Environmental Protection] and made the proper complaints and reports, the water had subsided. The DEP said there was no evidence of what had happened and therefore it was OK.

So he said, “Well, you know, you’re the island and we are the ocean. You set in the middle of 187,000 acres of coal company land. You’re the only thing we don’t own between here and the Virginia border.” I had my family members – seven of us – there for that meeting and it just didn’t make no sense.

And with that, I’m gonna add that the DEP doesn’t allow citizens to take samples of the water that runs by their house. So I mean if I had run out there and got a sample, it would have been nothing more than my sample. The DEP is not there for the citizens, they’re there for the coal companies, and they enable the coal companies. In some cases they even lie to the citizens in order to continue the work on the mountaintop removal site. I’ve been lied to many times.


I’ve had five DEP agents stand and look at me and tell me an eroded mountain wasn’t eroded. I have pictures and a lot of proof showing that it’s eroded. It’s like they were programmed to say – no matter what I said – that it was not eroded.


They just will not admit the fact that the mountains behind me is crumbling in on my home. The mountains are slipping into the hollow and in turn, it’s washing by me, and [it’s] flooding the people across from me. Everyone downstream from where that mountaintop removal site is gets flooded and their wells are contaminated. My well is contaminated. Can’t drink my water. I buy on average about $250 worth of water a month, and that’s on a slow month. The WV American Water Company’s wantin’ $31,000 to put water in to me. And that’s only 500 feet worth of water line. They want $31,000 for that. I can’t afford that, of course.



Photo: J. Henry Fair

And the financial aspects of what these catastrophic floods has done to our lives is just unbelievable. Lookin’ back on it, myself and my husband had real good jobs, workin’ full time, doin’ the life thing – you know, livin’ life. And then this flood thing started and we was just bein’ completely wiped out.


And in response to all the floods, and to the coal company’s claims that this was an “act of God” takin’ place in my back yard, I began organizing other people here in the neighborhood.


I got to lookin’ around, and it seemed that the people around me was bein’ affected or were in line to be affected by this same mountain top removal site. Doing this, I’ve also educated myself on mountain top removal in the regional area, in the Appalachian region. And I’ve been workin’ consistently for the past five years - locally I’ve been workin’ for seven years - on the issue of mountaintop removal and what it’s doin’ to our communities.

People around here are swiggin’ down contaminated water all day long, every day. The health affects are sometimes long-term. It’s usually pancreatic cancer or some kind of liver disease, or kidney stones, gall stones – digestive tract problems.  And then, too, people’s breathing. The blasting is killin’ people – just smotherin’ them to death through breathin’ all of the dust.  The computers and electronics and stuff in my house stay completely packed up with black coal dirt and rock dust together.  Why do they expect us to just take this? It’s not gonna happen down at the state capital. I mean they’re not gonna go up there and blast off the top of a mountain in the background of the Capitol.


Through my organizing, I’ve met quite a bit of…. I guess you could call it opposition. I’ve had my children get harassed.  I’ve got a 15-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl. I have a 15-year-old boy that looks like a 30-year-old man - he’s very big.  He’s been harassed by grown men. They call him tree-hugger and just generally say things to him that’s not nice. My son just takes it and goes – he’s a real trooper.


Before I began doing this, let me say, I did talk to my kids about it. My children don’t want to leave where they’re at, and that gives us one choice. That gives us the choice of fightin’ to stay. And we talked about it. When all this first come up, I really felt it was in our best interest to leave, but we were unable to do so. The property’s been devalued so bad that you can’t get nothin’ out of it to move forward with your life. And you can’t hardly walk off and leave everything you’ve got. So that’s pretty much the point that we’re at now.

Photo:  J. Henry Fair


And I see this happening throughout the communities in southern West Virginia, and then too in Tennessee and Kentucky.  And it’s wrong, you know? I mean it’s flat-out wrong to do people like this. If you react, the strip miners will cut you short every time. If you lash out and say, “Why are you destroyin’ my home?” they’ll look at you and say, “Well, I gotta have a job.” And they will verbally attack you in front of other people in the convenience store and say things to you that’s just completely and totally unnecessary. They will say things to you that really instigate you, and makes you – considering all we go through here day to day – just want to reach out and grab ‘em and shake the daylights out of ‘em! I wanna say, “How can you do me like this in the name of jobs? How can you do me and my family like this and expect us to sit by and just let you do it?”

One thing about West Virginia people is we’re not the kind to give up and walk away. If we was the kind to give up and walk away, we would never have settled this area years and years ago. Because this was a very rough terrain – a very rough life here. But people loved it – people like my great-grandmother, people like my grandfather before me. They loved this land, and tended this land. It’s land that wasn’t meant to be developed. It’s a special land. God put it way up high so they’d leave it alone.  I’ve had people to tell me that God put the coal there for us to mine. I have to disagree with that. He buried it because it’s so daggone nasty!