The future of coal and miner-activist relations: A talk with Judy Bonds

Music by Jake Wildwood


You are able to hear my voice right now because of electricity. Electricity that powered my computer and the voice recorder. As you hear this, electricity powers the computer in our studio that operates our radio programming. Most of that electricity comes from burning coal, especially in this part of the country. Some of that coal comes from a mining practice leads to people in Appalachia breathing silica dust into their lungs and ingesting selenium and arsenic as they drink the water in their communities.

It is my hope that this program is at least a small part of more people getting involved with finding better ways to get our electricity.




Welcome to the Feb 12, 2010 edition of Conscious Voices. I am Tom Over. This program has been made possible with funding help from the Puffin Foundation and from you.

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If you search the internet for information about mountain top removal mining, you'll find that people too numerous to count have, during the past few years, sat in jail cells, chained themselves to mining machinery, staged tree-sits, marched, rallied, and otherwise have worked to put an end to this form of strip of mining that is not only contaminating the air, land , and water in Appalachia, but also deforming its landscapes.


I spoke with activist Judy Bonds about these issues.


The following information about her comes primarily from the website of Coal River Mountain Watch, the organization Bonds co-directs.


Judy Bonds is a coal miner's daughter and granddaughter. She is an Appalachian American and her family has lived in the Coal River Valley in West Virginia for 10 generations.

Judy has been fighting for social and environmental justice for Appalachian coalfields since 1998. In 2003 she won the Goldman Environmental Prize. The prize is awarded to one person from each continent and she was the North American winner.


She was been featured in National Geographic, Vanity Fair, O, the magazine by Oprah Winfrey, and other publications and news outlets. The O Magazine issue focused on tough West Virginian women.


And now a note about how I put together this interview. During the most recent tree-sit protest that took place in West Virginia in order to temporarily interrupt mountain top removal mining operations on Coal River Mountain, several people on the website, commented on this issue.


Throughout most of this interview with Judy Bonds, I take the comments made by some people on and present them to her, for her response.


Here is the first comment from a person on : “people are hurting and the last thing they want to see is their electricity bills skyrocket, which is part of the reason why you don't see droves of people coming out in support of the protesters.”


Judy Bonds responded by saying the cost of coal is going to go up no matter what, and that people who are concerned about the cost of their electricity should support renewable energy. She also said that the amount of money people pay on their utility bills, is not a good measure for the total cost of coal. She said coal is actually not cheap if we take into account its negative effects upon the environment and public health.


Recent studies have indicated the fact that due to externalized costs taxpayers are paying four times more than what the coal industry is giving them in return...The industry is collecting four times more in tax dollars than the good that taxpayers are getting from the industry, Cost-benefit analysis shows that taxpayers are paying four times more to use coal than what they are getting out of coal ” said bonds. ( 1:41)


costs to clean up abandoned mine sites and cost to clean up water.



Another comment that someone posted on Columbus underground in response to myColumbus Free Press article about the most recent tree-sit protest in West Virginia is as follows: “ the kind of coal you get from mountain top removal mining is low sulfur and otherwise cleaner burning than most coal mined traditionally. You cannot obtain the same kind of coal through tunnel mining. The cleanest coal is typically found just below the surface.”


Bonds responded by saying there are mixed views on that.

We have studies that prove some of that is true and some of that is not true. But regardless of whether that's true or not, the fact this that all of this coal burned creates CO2 and there has to be new technology to capture the CO2. So that is really a mute point.”


Bonds said that in addition to the problem with CO2 emissions is the problem of what is happening to people who live near the surface mines.


There are people who are being blasted and poisoned and whose homes are being destroyed and whose lives are being destroyed because of this type of mining. It's not ok to blast and poison people for this small amount of coal that we can only mine for the next 15 years. The cost to society is way too much. We can put scrubbers on those power plants,” Bonds said.



Another comment I got after I posted a link on Columbus Underground that led to my article in the Columbus Free Press about mountain top removal mining is as follows : “ you can't just diversify a regions economy and energy portfolio by pointing and clicking. This isn't Sim City. For the moment, maybe at least a substantial portion of the region's economy actually does depend on blowing up the tops of mountains.”


Bonds said she agreed that changing the economy of Appalachia won't be easy, but she said that doesn't mean it can't be done. She said it must be done not only to stop the poisoning of people living in the coal fields but also to address the region's and the nation's need for a clean sustainable supply of energy.


We only have 15-20 years of surface mining left. There's a better way of doing this. We can pay these men not mine the coal in this manner and put them to work in underground mining. We can transition through this, ” Bonds said.


Here is another reason Bonds gave for why Appalachia must diversify its economy:

When you create a mono-economy the way the coal industry has been allowed to do in Southern West Virginia, then you have people who have to choose between blasting and poisoning their own neighbors and their own children and not making a living. A man shouldn't have to make that choice. But indeed , that's what's happening in West Virginia.”




Activists against mountain top removal mining have created the coal river mountain wind project. A couple of months ago, Massey Energy, a major player in surface mining in the region, begun blasting on Coal River Mountain, putting into jeopardy the wind farm project.


A commenter on Columbus Underground responded to activists' claim that the wind project would replace surface mining jobs. She said “at the very least, after a few minutes googling the Coal River Mountain Wind Project, I didn't find figures or projections that suggested that wind farms would be sufficient to replace the gross regional product represented by the coal industry, or even just the segment of the coal industry involved in mountain top removal.”


Bonds responded by saying that she an other opponents of mountain top removal never claimed that the wind project would replace all of the surface mining jobs. Instead they presented it as a part of the solution, and as a way to at least get a process started for preparing the region for what is to come. Again, she said she is not being naïve about the enormity of the challenge of changing the region's economy and it's energy portfolio. But she said it is something that has to be done, regardless of how difficult it may be.


The fact of the matter is that we had better come up with a better way to produce electricity, because studies by DownStream Strategies show that Appalachian coal will continue to decline almost in half over the next ten years. We are literally running out of coal. Some Americans are complacent and not understanding that we are in a corner now and have to transition now or we won't be able to meet our energy needs,” Bonds said. (7:46)


Activists such as Bonds and other opponents of mountain top removal mining have said that concerns about the jobs that the coal industry creates in Appalachia don't add up, given the fact that the coal mining region has been among the poorest in the nation.


A person commenting on Columbus Underground wrote “ That doesn't change the fact they will be even poorer when the mines shut down.”


Bonds said the mines are going to shut down anyway whether or not mountain top removal mining is abolished. “The question is, what will the coal industry leave for the people of West Virginia as they try to build a new economy? Poisoned water and a scarred landscapes where no one wants to live?” (11:17)


Are we going to destroy our water and any other type of attractions that would bring other industries to our state, just so we can mine the very last bit of coal?” (8:30)


Bonds and other opponents of mountain top removal mining, would like to bring more tourism to the region as one of many ways to diversify its economy. But Bonds said tourists typically don't want to go to a place where the streams have signs bearing the skull and cross bone symbol.


Bonds said what mountain top removal mining has done to the region's water has also scared off some potential business investments.


And again, her point seems to be that stopping mountain top removal mining in the short term and, in the longer term replacing coal with solar, wind, and other renewable energy is what must be done to prepare for the future of the region as well as the future of our country.


According to Bonds, the United States is exporting coal to China that they use to build wind turbines to sell back to our country. Last week the London Times reported that China has now surpassed both the EU and the United States in its manufacturing of wind turbines.


We should be making those wind turbines right here in America, right here in West Virginia. We had better come up with a new way to get our energy. That day is coming soon. We need to come out of the 19th century and stop burning rocks and (instead) use our heads. The only way the American economy is going to rebound is if we switch to renewable energy,” (13:40)




Here is another comment from the website, Columbus Underground : “ a wind farm, once up and running would employ about ten people. You can't consider it an equal replacement (for mountain top removal mining jobs) from a human scale.” This person who commented on Columbus Underground also said that, by comparison, mountain top removal mining employs approximately 10,000 people.


Bonds said those figures are wrong both for the number of people employed on a mountain top removal site and for the number of people a wind farm would employ.



The projection for Coal River Wind was for 50-75 permanent workers and 200-250 construction workers. There are about anywhere from 50-75 on a mountain top removal site. But the wind farms are forever. The mountain top removal jobs are probably for 5-7 years . Then they'll move on to the next mountain until the last mountain is gone. So, what we're looking at is clean, good jobs that last forever as opposed to short-term destructive jobs,” (18:45)


Bonds said with the federal Abandoned Mine Lands money, the strip miners will have many years of work trying to fix the destruction that has already taken place.


(For) the ones that operate the trucks and the dozers, what we have asked for out of President Obama is to please release more of the federal Abandoned Mine Lands money so that we can have good paying jobs here.”


I asked Bonds about the extent to which she thinks there's a connection between Massey Energy's performance in terms of worker health and safety and their ability to unionize, on the one hand, with, on the other hand, what Massey Energy is doing to the air, land, and water of West Virginia.


They(Massey) have such a high turnover. People will take a job with Massey and once they fulfilled their requirements and get their training, they would leave Massey and go to another coal mine. To stop this Massey is now using something that years ago we called a 'yaller dog' contract. What that means is these men have to sign a contract with Massey to get their training. If they don't stay with Massey for a specific amount of time, they have to pay back to Massey the money they used to train him.” (22:29)


The union (United Mine Workers of America) does try to continue to fight for worker safety and workers' rights. I will say that about the union. They are very concerned about worker safety, and rightfully so when it comes to Massey. I've talked to some Massey workers off the record and called in some complaints for them in secret to MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration)”


Bonds said many of the miners fear for their jobs. She said that is what happens when one industry is allowed to dominate Southern West Virginia. That fear on the part of workers in the mining industry may at least partly explain, though not excuse, violence and threats of violence activists against mountain top removal have experienced in some mining communities.


Bonds said she will stand by the workers if they will challenge the politicians and demand that they bring in new jobs to the region.

It's us poor citizens who have to push the politicians. Politicians don't lead. Citizens lead. Citizens have to push them to do the right thing. That's the way it's always been. We'll stand with the workers if they stand up to the politicians, like Governor Manchin and Jay Rockefeller, and their local legislators, instead of blaming environmentalists.”


Bonds said workers in the mining industry should work with activists such as herself in order to demand that politicians and industry leaders bring new jobs to their state and their region. She said opposing mountain top removal mining gets to the heart of the issues our nation faces.


She said America is at a cross-roads and the right path to go down is one in which we address problems with our infrastructure, such as our roads, bridges, and power grids.


I think if we don't go to individual solar panels and wind turbines and set up community grids, I think we're all going to be in a lot of trouble.”


Bonds recommended the End Mountain Top Removal Week in Washington, as one of many ways to get involved with this issue. The event goes from March 6 through March 10.


It's for Appalachians, people like myself and other people that have been affected by coal mining, and impacted by strip mining and sludge, they go to Washington. And there are people from all over America that go to Washington with them to lobby with their own representatives. It's not just for Appalachians.”


Bonds is optimistic about achieving a ban on mountain top removal mining and doing it soon.


The genie is out of the bottle and they can't put it back in. Once it hits pop culture, then there's not a lot you can do about it, but discuss it, get the issue out there and find a solution.”


Margaret A. Palmer a professor of Entomology and Biology at the University of Maryland led a study that the journal Science published in its January issue. Shortly after that, Palmer appeared for 15 minutes on the popular Colbert Report. Amidst a barrage of satirical jokes from Steven Colbert, Palmer called for an end to mountain top removal mining.


Bonds said themes in James Cameron's the box office smash hit, Avatar offer parallels.

That little gray energy rock that they're destroying the Na Vi for looks a lot like coal, and some of those machines in the very first part of the movie look a lot like the machines they use for mountain top removal mining in West Virginia. The whole story line revolves around this energy rock that they're trying to destroy the people's land for. The genie is out of the bottle. The coal industry is going to be forced to discuss its shortcomings and its dishonesty and their dismal safety and health records for both workers and community residents.”


Bonds said some of her fellow activists against mountain top removal mining will participate in the US Social Forum which will be held in Detroit in June.

We were at the last social forum. That's where we connected with the people of the Little Village in Chicago that have three coal-fired power plants right in their backyards. Their children are getting deathly sick. We also connected with people who live in Detroit that have coal-fired power plants in their backyard and their children are getting very ill too.”



This is Tom Over and this has been the Feb 12, 2010 edition of Conscious Voices, with funding help from the Puffin Foundation and listeners such as you. You can comment on this program at WCRSFM.ORG or at