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Reason to Believe in Environmental Justice: Coalfields Hero Judy Bonds

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As the White House convenes the first ever forum on environmental justice today, millions of pounds of explosives detonating across the historic ranges and communities in our nation's first frontier of Appalachia, it might be easy to slip into a state of despair over the future of besieged coalfield residents.

Yet, as we head into another winter of discontent in the coalfields, Judy Bonds, the indefatigable Goldman-Prize-winning activist in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia, always gives me a reason to believe in the still small possibility of environmental justice in America.

Failed attempts at improved mine safety legislation last week have been shamelessly matched by the failure of the hand-wringing Obama administration this year to halt reckless mountaintop removal operations that have left parts of Appalachia in ruin. Mountaintop removal coal provides less than 8 percent of our nation's coal production -- and yet, it provides one of the most enduring examples of environmental crimes, economic ruin and human rights violations in our times.

Nearly two years ago on a bitterly cold day in Washington, D.C., Bonds riveted a huddled crowd at the Capital Power Plant by calling on our nation to envision a clean-energy future. "I don't mind being poor," she told the crowd, "And I don't mind being made fun of. But I draw the line at being blasted and poisoned." She invoked Frederick Douglass' charge that "change requires thunder and lightning." Judy reminded the crowd: "And you are the thunder. You are the lightning."

I filed my first story on mountaintop removal 10 years ago, when my family's historic homestead in the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois was strip-mined into oblivion, but I will never forget standing at the abyss of a strip-mine in West Virginia in the summer of 1983 with famed labor organizer and poet Don West. Back in the 1960s, West had written:

If we native mountaineers can now determine to organize and save ourselves, save our mountains from the spoilers who tear them down, pollute our streams, and leave grotesque areas of ugliness, there is hope... It is time to realize nobody from the outside is ever going to save us from bad conditions unless we make our own stand.

West reminded me that Appalachians have always been on the frontlines of social justice movements that have shaped America's legacy of democracy, especially in moments of despair and seeming hopelessness; that mountaineers turned the tide of the faltering American Revolution at the battle of Kings Mountain in 1780; that Appalachians published the first anti-slavery newspaper in 1819 and inspired the northern abolitionist movement; that mountain people galvanized the labor movements with their fearless battles and trained the shock troops of the Civil Rights movements at the Highlander Folk Center.

A coal miner's daughter and a grandmother, Judy Bonds has added a new chapter to Appalachia's -- and our nation's -- struggle for environmental justice in the 21st century.

Over the past decade, as co-director of the Coal River Mountain Watch and a tireless campaigner for a just transition to a clean energy future across the country, Judy Bonds has given us a reason to believe that we can save ourselves, save our mountains--that there is hope.

In an interview last year, Bonds called on activists to not give up the fight against mountaintop removal and ramp up a groundswell of pressure to give politicians the courage to end mining abuses:

This issue will have to be resolved by a groundswell of outrage on behalf of the public and activists, putting grassroots activists on the ground while putting pressure on officials, politicians, and media to force change is the immediate key to resolving the issue here. Currently we have proposed two bills: a House bill: (H.R. 1310) the Clean Water Protection Act, and a Senate bill: (S. 696) the Appalachia Restoration Act. Both bills will sharply reduce mountaintop removal coal mining, and protect clean drinking water for many of our nation's cities. It will also protect the quality of life for Appalachian coalfield residents who face frequent catastrophic flooding and pollution or loss of drinking water as a result of mountaintop removal coal mining. But I honestly believe these bills will not be passed into law unless the politicians have the courage to do so. Mountain top removal and strip mining is as black and white an issue as it gets. I believe many politicians are looking for the courage to act appropriately, the people just need to put the pressure on them and that will provide the courage needed. So, the silver lining is the people on the ground.

If Judy Bonds, on the frontlines of mountaintop removal, can see that silver lining, then clean energy activists across the nation have a reason to believe.

To support Judy and Coal River Mountain Watch, visit their website.

Various film documentaries have featured Judy, including On Coal River and Coal Country.

Bill Moyers did this interview with Judy a few years ago:

Jeff Biggers is the author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland.

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