Mountains on Her Mind

Mountains on Her Mind

When she takes a visitor to see the land her ancestors settled in the early 19th century in Boone County, West Virginia, Maria Gunnoe drives out along a rutted two-lane highway, beneath softly wooded hills and rippling brooks, to the base of a mountain, and points to a small mound at its peak. "That's Jarrell's Cemetery," she says. "We used to camp up there a lot when I was growing up." The tiny graveyard dates back to Civil War times. Some of Gunnoe's forebears are buried here.

Jarrell's Cemetery once occupied a slope leading up to the mountain's summit, but in recent years the graveyard has become the summit itself, as coal workers have systematically destroyed the earth around it in their pursuit of the black rock that fuels the light bulbs and cell phones and air-conditioning units that make 21st-century-American life possible. The only reason the cemetery still stands, in fact, is because Gunnoe and others like her fought to save it.

Even though its graves are sinking and many of its headstones missing or shattered, and even though the land around it is a moonscape, Gunnoe, a lean woman in her forties, with long black hair and the watchful eyes of a hawk, periodically visits the place where her ancestors lie buried. It's not an easy trip. She has to go through worksite-safety training, wear a hard hat and steel-toe boots, limit her visit to two hours, and keep a coal-company escort with her. But she does it, "just to remind them that we care about the people that's in the cemetery." Once there, Gunnoe says, her eyes narrowing, "you're in the midst of just sheer devastation. I've explained it as feeling like a newborn baby lying in the middle of a mountain of rolling rock."

Blasting is so routine in this part of Appalachia that local newspapers regularly print notices announcing when and where it will occur.

The mountain on which Jarrell's Cemetery perches is one of more than 500 peaks environmental advocates say the coal industry has flattened through mountaintop removal, a process in which miners use explosives to rip off the tops of hills and mountains to get at underlying coal seams. For the past 18 years, Gunnoe has been battling the practice, which is destroying the land her elders taught her to cherish and damaging the health of its residents.

Her actions have brought her honor—most recently the University of Michigan's Wallenberg Award—and peril. The pale green one-story house where she lives with her husband, the house her grandfather built in 1951 at the base of a hollow near the lyrically named town of Bob White, is surrounded by a chain-link fence and under 24-hour video surveillance. A few years ago, after she received death threats and heard gunfire over her home, Gunnoe began wearing a bulletproof vest to mow her lawn.

Family legend has it that when Gunnoe's Cherokee ancestors fled Georgia in the 1830s during the Trail of Tears, Maria's great-great-great grandmother cast her eyes into West Virginia's undulating hills and announced, "These hollows will protect us."

And so they did. Growing up, Maria learned from her mother, father, and grandfather how to forage in the mountains for berries and wild onions, how to prepare medicinal teas from native plants like sassafras and ginseng. She hunted for arrowheads in the caves that lace the ridgelines of Boone County's mountains.

Home to the largest unbroken forest east of the Mississippi and to one of the world's most biodiverse ecosystems, this isolated part of America is also home to some of the nation's most lucrative coal deposits. Gunnoe, the daughter, granddaughter, sister, and mother of miners, is the first to declare her support for "underground, responsible, union coal miners."

But not mountaintop removal. It's the predominant form of strip mining in the U.S., and since 1970 it has destroyed more than 1.5 million acres in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia, and buried or severely degraded over 3,000 miles of streams, according to mine safety and health and environmental expert Jack Spadaro, who often testifies in cases related to mining accidents and environmental damage.

Gunnoe spent ten years listening to the mountaintop that sits 3,500 feet above her house gradually give way to rubble as miners systematically drilled down into its bedrock, packed it with chemical compounds, and "exploded the mountain. They were drilling, pushing rock, or blasting, all day long, six days a week, and sometimes seven, usually twice a day," she remembers. Blasting is so routine in this part of Appalachia that local newspapers regulary print notices announcing when and where it will occur.

Dust from the operation drifted down into the hollow where Gunnoe lives and in the winter nestled against the ground like fog and stayed for days. Her teenage son once came back from jogging with black goo inside his eyelids.

Chemical fallout from mountaintop removal penetrates not only the air but the waterways that course through Boone County and feed into the Ohio River system. Sludge left over after coal is cleaned for shipment is pumped underground, often into abandoned mines, and winds up in the aquifer. Mountain debris is dumped into valleys, where it buries and contaminates headwater streams, and sprayed with grass seed to create "valley fill," an unstable substance prone to flooding. Gunnoe estimates she's experienced nine major floods on her property in the past decade.

Two years ago a study in the journal Science reported that mountaintop-mining removal and valley fill produce "serious environmental impacts," including the permanent loss of ecosystems critical to the food chain, a loss of vegetation and topsoil, alterations in topography, greater storm runoff, and increased frequency and magnitude of downstream flooding. The impact on human health is equally dire, researchers said. In streams beneath valley fills, scientists found elevated concentrations of sulfate, calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate ions, and selenium, which bioaccumulates and can disrupt human endocrine function.

Boone County resident Jennifer Hall-Massey, who lives a dozen miles from Gunnoe, told the New York Times in 2009 that tests of the water in her home showed toxic amounts of lead, manganese, barium, and other metals.

Like most of her neighbors, Gunnoe uses bottled water for drinking and cooking. When her two grandsons were born, she bathed them in bottled water for months. "It takes three gallons," she says. Rashes, tooth decay, gall bladder diseases, miscarriages, kidney and thyroid issues are common in the region, and the incidence of health problems is unusually high, say medical professionals. Gunnoe's 19-year-old daughter, Chrystal, has lost three young friends to cancer. Earlier this year, a fourth was diagnosed. "Cancer's as common as a cold here anymore," Gunnoe sighs.

As she pilots her dust-encrusted Ford along a two-lane road underneath the Twilight Surface Mine, Gunnoe points to the ways mountaintop removal has altered the life she knew as a kid: an empty storefront that used to be a busy café, an eerily fluorescent-blue stream, a grassy hillside where there was once a valley. The community of Lindytown, formerly home to some 40 families, now consists of four homes and an abandoned union hall. The rest of its homes were bought up and destroyed in 2009 by Massey Energy, and their inhabitants relocated, so the company could mine the mountain overhead. "The church sat right there on the corner," Gunnoe says as she pulls up beside a patch of weedy land. "Right here used to be flower gardens, sidewalks, a set of steps."

She drives on, along a road scarred from use by 18-wheelers trundling in loads of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel for blasting. "A wreck or a spark could cause a massive explosion," Gunnoe says. Not long ago, her sister-in-law died in a collision with a truck whose driver had been sent out to patch leaks on a sludge dam. Gunnoe is now raising her eight-year-old nephew, who survived the crash.

In 1998, Gunnoe's father was out collecting wild onions in an all-terrain vehicle when he lost traction on a gravelly patch of land the coal industry had reclaimed after mountaintop removal. The ATV flipped over and killed him. He was 51. "That's something that's very difficult for me to talk about," Maria whispers, her voice cracking. "But yeah, I feel like this industry murdered my father." She falls silent, looks out at the hills, rubs her hand across her eyes. "My dad was the reason that I love these mountains so much. That's where I spent my time with him."

She dislikes the term "environmentalist," often used to describe the work she and her colleagues do, educating neighbors about the health and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal and building citizen advocacy. "People try to divide us by calling us environmentalists, but we're really people that are trying their best to protect our community and our lives."

In the 25 years they've collectively been battling mountaintop removal, Gunnoe and the organization she works for, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), have had their share of successes, including blockage of a valley fill in 2007 and the permanent preservation of land near Bob White, West Virginia, formerly slated for destruction. OVEC recently bought a small house in the town of Twilight, and their presence means it'll be harder for the coal industry to purchase rights to destroy the mountain above them. "The fact that we own property here now is one of the reasons that you're looking around and you still see homes here," Gunnoe says proudly.

In January, OVEC joined a coalition of groups urging passage of federal legislation ( to impose an immediate moratorium on all surface mining permits until further health impact studies are done.

Gunnoe believes her work helped inspire an op-ed by the late U.S. Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), which came out shortly before his death in 2010. A long-time proponent of the coal industry, Byrd stunned constituents when he wrote, "If the process of mining destroys nearby wells and foundations, if blasting and digging and relocating streams unearths harmful elements and releases them into the environment causing illness and death, that process should be halted and the resulting hazards to the community abated."

Equally stunning was a statement by outgoing U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) last year in which he urged the coal industry to "listen to what markets are saying about greenhouse gases and other environmental concerns, to what West Virginians are saying about their water and air, their health, and the cost of caring for seniors and children who are most susceptible to pollution."

Despite her support of underground miners, Gunnoe knows that Boone County-like the rest of the U.S.—must wean itself from dependence on fossil fuels. "The reality is we're running out of coal. I think we're coming to a point, globally, that we have to … treat responsible coal mining as a transition fuel into a renewable energy future."

As for the charge that she and her fellow activists are destroying jobs, Gunnoe notes that mountaintop removal itself replaces workers because it's less labor-intensive than underground mining. Records show that between 1979 and 2010, West Virginia's coal workforce dropped from 62,500 to around 22,000. Retired miner and United Mine Workers of America member Terry Steele told the New Republic in 2010, "I don't even like to compare what they're doing to what we're doing."

Gunnoe likes to think she's no longer in the danger she was when she first started her advocacy work. In fact what frightens her most today is not the threat of violence but the more than 20 peer-reviewed studies that have come out in the past five years showing the grave dangers of mountaintop removal to human health.

On a late afternoon in January, Gunnoe sits on a wooden swing on the front porch of her house in Bob White and looks out at the chickadees and nuthatches crowding her birdfeeder, and at the mountains in the distance where her ancestors took refuge nearly 200 years ago, and where many of them lie buried. This is her favorite spot in the world, she says, and if she has to risk her life to stay here, she will. "They tried everything to scare me off, thinking I would just pack and leave," she nods. "But I made a promise to my grandfather and my father, and ultimately I'll keep that promise. And the promise was that I would take care of their property and see to it that it carried on into the future, and that's what I've done."

By Leslie Stainton

Mining's Global Toll


Larry Gibson's cabin once nestled at the base of West Virginia's Kayford Mountain. Today Gibson's cabin occupies the highest point in the landscape. Gibson died last fall, but his cabin—the centerpiece of a tract of land acquired by his forebears in the 18th century and razed by the coal industry in the 1980s and 1990s—stands as a poignant and powerful symbol of the devastation that accompanies the mining practice known as mountaintop removal.

Rachel Long first saw the Gibson cabin in 2009, and the experience shocked her. Then a student in U-M's Program in the Environment, Long promptly joined a grass-roots campaign to end mountaintop-removal mining, a practice that has led to the destruction of more than 500 mountaintops in Appalachia.

Today she's focused on a different kind of mining. As project manager for the U-M–based Integrated Assessment of Small-Scale Gold Mining, Long is working with U-M School of Public Health Assistant Professor Nil Basu and a team of researchers to assess and understand the health impacts of small-scale gold mining in Ghana.

In addition to contributing to deforestation and land-use change, gold mining in Ghana poses serious health risks to the men, women, and children who live near the country's gold deposits. "There's no boundary between the workplace and where people live," says Tom Robins, professor of environmental health sciences and a member of Basu's research team. The process of extracting gold releases heavy metals, including mercury and arsenic, and other undesirable compounds, such as silica, into the air, and researchers believe Ghanaians are inhaling these materials as dust or ingesting them through water. "You can see very high levels of ore dust exposures," says Robins.

Basu's group is also studying the health impacts of the mercury used to process gold. During processing, gold ore is ground to a powder, washed, and ultimately blended with mercury, which is then vaporized and inhaled by workers. "That's a pretty high dose of mercury if you're standing right over it," Long notes. Vaporized mercury also enters the air and is eventually deposited in both soil and water, where bacteria convert it into an organic form that's ingested by fish, and in turn by both animals and humans.


When she heard that Maria Gunnoe was coming to U-M to accept the 2012 Wallenberg Award, Mary Lynam, a researcher with the SPH-based U-M Air Quality Laboratory, knew it would benefit SPH students, faculty, and staff to hear Gunnoe's story firsthand, and so Lynam arranged for Gunnoe to visit the school.

"The real cost of producing electricity is not understood by most people," Lynam says. "The real cost is air and water pollution—that's Maria Gunnoe's message."

For more than two decades, Lynam and her colleagues in the Air Quality Laboratory have been studying the environmental impact of mercury and other atmospheric pollutants—including particulate matter, arsenic, and so-called "acid gases"—emitted by coal-fired power plants. Coal generates approximately 40 percent of the electricity used in the United States and is the country's single largest source of mercury pollution.

Studies show that individuals exposed to high levels of air pollution experience higher rates of morbidity, says Lynam, who received her PhD in environmental health sciences from SPH in 2003. "New studies also show that in addition to respiratory dysfunction as a result of air pollution, there's cardiac dysfunction associated with exposure to particulate matter."

Mercury released into the air from coal-fired power plants makes its way into the food chain, where it is converted into an even more potent toxin known as methylmercury. Fish, which reside near the top of the food chain, can contain high levels of mercury and pose a particular risk to women of childbearing age, young children, and so-called "subsistence" fishers. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued at least one fish-consumption advisory in every state in the U.S., Lynam notes. Commercial fish are also susceptible to mercury emitted from both U.S. and Chinese coal-fired power plants.

Research from the Air Quality Lab, founded in 1990 by the late Gerald Keeler, has been instrumental in helping to shape U.S. mercury-emissions-control policy. But as long as humans continue to rely on coal for electricity generation, mercury and other toxic emissions will persist. "That's what's so important about Maria's work," says Lynam. "She teaches us that although we might not live in an area where mountaintop mining is being carried out, we are intimately involved with this process every time we turn on a light."


SPH Professor Tom Robins has devoted much of his career to studying respiratory diseases associated with underground mining. His work on pneumoconiosis—black lung disease—has helped strengthen regulatory standards in the coal industry in both the U.S. and South Africa.

Robins is now studying the pulmonary health of miners in Zambia, where copper is a major export. The critical issue with copper mining, Robins says, is the high concentration of crystalline silica in the ore. Exposure to silica can lead to silicosis, a non-malignant but often lethal lung disease that "has probably killed more people than any other type of occupational lung disease in the world," Robins says.

Silicosis—and even silica exposure itself—can compromise the human immune system and heighten the risk for tuberculosis, now endemic in Zambia. The country also has some of the world's highest rates of HIV/AIDS—another factor in increased risk for TB. Robins and his research team have found substantial exposures to silica in Zambia's copper mines—in many cases, he says, "well above international standards." Better enforcement of safety regulations is a must. Robins and his colleagues are already presenting data to officials in Zambia's Ministry of Health and Ministry of Labor. "People are quite interested," he notes. "They'll be very interested, I think, when we make our final presentations."

Common Ground?

Founded in 2004, the interdisciplinary U-M Risk Science Center supports science—informed decision—making on existing and emergent human health risks. Andrew Maynard, director of the center and NSF International Chair of Environmental Health Sciences, suggests ways the center—and risk science in general—can help communities address contentious issues like mountaintop removal:

"Mountaintop removal is a classic case of a situation where you've got significant health, environmental, and economic impacts vying with each other, and people desperately looking for answers, but little clarity as to what's right or wrong. And what happens is that people end up arguing from a position of gut instinct and fear—fear of losing their business, or their livelihood, or their lives. Evidence and science can help establish a meaningful dialogue between different stakeholders. But evidence in complex situations like this is almost never conclusive. I see the role of risk science as not dictating what's right or wrong, but making evidence more understandable and accessible, and giving people on both sides of the debate a common basis from which to find solutions that work for everybody.

"Our planet is going to change more radically over the next 30 years than it has in the past 200 years, and if we want to sustain both local and global communities, we've got to re-energize dialogues that are often bogged down in entrenched positions and assumed risks—because the world is quickly becoming smaller, more crowded, and more complex, and we have to work together to protect our planet. You just need to look at the exponential growth in energy demands and at the growth in human population, which is heading toward nine billion people in a decade or so. As a society, we need to find common ground about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Again, there are no right or wrong answers—but if the decisions we make together are divorced from the science that dictates how things behave, the only certainty is that we'll end up in a mess."

The Wallenberg Award

First given in 1985, the University of Michigan's Raoul Wallenberg Award honors "individuals, organizations and communities that reflect Raoul Wallenberg's humanitarian spirit, personal courage and nonviolent action in the face of enormous odds." A 1935 graduate of U-M, the Swedish-born Wallenberg saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews near the end of World War II. In choosing Maria Gunnoe as the 2012 recipient of its award, the Wallenberg Committee wrote, "She is in the vanguard of activists who recognize that environmental justice is critical for the survival of small rural communities that face powerful political and economic interests."