“My Life is On the Line” Part One - by Maria Gunnoe
from “Like Walkin’ Onto Another Planet” Read More Stories (OVEC)
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.
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
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.
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!
Read PART TWO