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Judy Bonds, An Enemy of Mountaintop Coal Mining, Dies at 58
January 15, 2011
Judy Bonds, an Enemy of Mountaintop Coal Mining, Dies at 58
By DENNIS HEVESI
Ankle deep in the stream by the house where his coal-mining family had lived for generations, Judy Bonds’s 6-year-old grandson, Andrew, scooped up fistfuls of dead fish one day back in 1996.
“What’s wrong with these fish?” he asked.
“I knew something was very, very wrong,” Ms. Bonds told Sierra magazine in 2003. “So I began to open my eyes and pay attention.”
Ms. Bonds soon discovered that the fish had been poisoned by debris from the mines in the mountains above the West Virginia hollow where her family had lived since early last century. Within six years, she and her Marfork Hollow neighbors had to abandon their homes.
That day in the stream, Ms. Bonds found her mission. Since then, thousands of people — neighbors, environmental activists, politicians, mining company officials, industry regulators and crowds at the rallies she organized — have heard from the short, round-faced woman known as the godmother of the movement to stop mountaintop-removal coal mining.
Ms. Bonds died of cancer — it had spread from her lungs — on Jan. 3 in Charleston, W.Va., at age 58, said Vernon Haltom, who leads the Coal River Mountain Watch, an advocacy group. He and Ms. Bonds had been its co-directors since 2007.
Based in a former post office in Whitesville, W.Va., the organization is dedicated to banning the mining process by which mountaintops are blasted off to expose coal seams, with tons of loose rock cascading into adjacent valleys and carbon dioxide billowing into the atmosphere.
The tumbling rock — called valley fills — clogs streams and rivers and leaches chemicals, previously sealed underground, into water systems.
“There are many things we ought to do to deal with climate change,” James E. Hansen, a climatologist at NASA and Columbia University, said Thursday, “but stopping mountaintop-removal is the place to start. Coal contributes the most carbon dioxide of any energy source.” Carbon dioxide traps heat from the sun and prevents it from escaping the atmosphere.
In 2001, three years after she joined Coal River Mountain Watch as a volunteer, Ms. Bonds became the organization’s $12,000-a-year outreach director, a position she accepted after working as a waitress, then manager, at a Pizza Hut while a single mother.
In her new job, she began staging protest rallies, testifying at regulatory hearings, filing lawsuits, picketing mining company stockholders’ meetings, organizing letter-writing campaigns. A primary target was the Massey Energy Company, which owned the mines around Marfork Hollow and other Appalachian communities. Last April, an explosion at the Massey Company’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., killed 29 miners in what was the nation’s worst mining disaster in 40 years.
“She became the voice for communities around the country fighting mountaintop-removal,” Mr. Haltom said of Ms. Bonds. “She spoke to audiences of one person to 6,000.”
One of her standard lines was, “Stop poisoning our babies.”
In 2003 Ms. Bonds received the Goldman Environmental Prize, an annual $150,000 prize that goes to unrecognized “grass-roots environmental heroes.”
“Her dedication and success as an activist and organizer have made her one of the nation’s leading community activists confronting an industry practice that has been called ‘strip mining on steroids,’ ” the Goldman Foundation said.
For years, Ms. Bonds had envisioned a “thousand-hillbilly march” in Washington. That wish was fulfilled last September, when about 2,000 people joined what was called the Appalachia Rising, leading to the arrest of about 100 protesters outside the White House. But by then she was too ill to join the march.
Julia (she preferred to be called Judy) Belle Thompson was born on Aug. 27, 1952, one of nine children of Oliver and Sarah Thompson. Her father stopped working in the mines at 65 and soon died of black lung disease. Besides her grandson, she is survived by her daughter, Lisa Henderson; two brothers, Ernie and Paul; and three sisters, Wanda Webb, Marilyn Thompson and Jamie Adkins.
Danger came with Ms. Bonds’s activism: phone threats, insults, physical attacks.
“She was walking right behind me when she got belted by a burly miner’s wife,” said Dr. Hansen, who in June 2009 joined a march at Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, W.Va., to protest its proximity to a coal-processing silo and a slurry dam, parts of a 2,000-acre mountaintop-removal site.
“She fought to get a safe new school for the kids,” Mr. Haltom said. “In the old one, the kids breathe coal dust in class.”
But last April, he continued, “everything came together: a new school at a safe location about 10 miles up the road. The kids will start attending class there in the fall of 2012.”
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