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Coal critic among the 2009 Goldman winners

A West Virginian who stood up to the coal mining industry was among the winners of the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize.
Goldman Environmental Prize Winners
The 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize recipients, from left: Wanze Eduards, Olga Speranskaya, Hugo Jabini, Yuyun Ismawati, Rizwana Hasan and Maria Gunnoe. Ben Margot / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In Maria Gunnoe's 11-year war over the strip mining she says has ruined her homestead, there have been casualties: Family dogs have been poisoned and shot and her truck's fuel tank has been stuffed with sand.

Yet she keeps fighting to stop mountaintop removal mining. And for confronting the coal industry in Appalachia, she is the 2009 North American winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Given to activists annually — one prize on each inhabited continent — the Goldman is the largest award of its kind with a $150,000 cash prize. The winners were being recognized Monday in San Francisco.

"I never even knew I was an environmentalist," Gunnoe, who lives in southwestern West Virginia, said with a chuckle.

Though raised to mind her own business, she was also taught to fight when attacked. That's how she sees the destruction of her gardens and orchard.

"The coal industry calls this 'coal country,'" she said. "I call it God's country."

Mountaintop removal mining has grown increasingly common in central Appalachia. Coal operators blast the tops of mountains apart to expose seams that are otherwise hard to reach, flattening ridge lines, then dumping debris into valleys below.

Gunnoe's home sits below a valley fill and has been flooded with coal waste seven times since 2000.

"She's one of the bravest activists that we've seen, putting her life on the line," said Lorrae Rominger, deputy director of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Gunnoe also shows how the environmental movement has changed.

"It can't be just about standing on a stage and protesting anymore. You have to start working within your local governments and your state and national governments to get policy and legislation," Rominger said. "We're seeing that the way to change the government is to work within it, and I think Maria does that."

Sometimes, Gunnoe says she endures outright confrontation, like the chest bump from a drunken man trying to disrupt a community meeting. And she's awoken before dawn to find men standing 15 feet from her door, staring.

"To be quite honest with you, if I tried to file charges against everybody who's harassing me, I'd be in court every day," Gunnoe said. "And usually, when I've got somebody there threatening me, there's someone in the background that's got my back."

And Gunnoe said she has some empathy for her opponents.

"They are only threatening me because they feel threatened. In some cases, I understand their concerns about their jobs," she said. "But they really need to take time to think about the impact on the people they've labeled as environmentalists. We are not environmentalists. We are, however, citizens of the community they're impacting."

The other Goldman winners:

  • Marc Ona, of Libreville, Gabon, for exposing the unlawful agreements for a huge Chinese mine that threatens the country's rainforests.
  • Rizwana Hasan, of Dhaka, Bangladesh, for working to improve conditions if the shipbreaking industry. The attorney has led a legal battle resulting in increased government regulation and heightened public awareness.
  • Olga Speranskaya, of Moscow, Russia, for creating a strong awareness in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia of the Soviet legacy of toxic chemicals.
  • Yuyun Ismawati, of Bali, Indonesia, for implementing sustainable, community-based waste management systems.
  • Wanze Eduards and Hugo Jabini, of Pikin Slee Village and Paramaribo in Suriname, for organizing their communities against logging on their traditional lands. That led to a landmark ruling for indigenous and tribal peoples to control resource exploitation in their territories.