Coal River Mountain Watch’s history of resistance to mountaintop coal mining is plastered across the wood-paneled walls of the group’s modest office in Raleigh County, West Virginia.
Framed photos, many of demonstrators being handcuffed, dot the walls. In the back of the building, a floor-to-ceiling length tapestry depicts the “true cost of coal” as envisioned by an activist volunteer group that created it. Pollution spews from a coal-fired power plant. A stream runs dirty. Anthropomorphic creatures take the place of humans.
“Look for somebody with a bullhorn,” said Vernon Haltom. The current co-executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch is animated as he searches the tableau, his salt-and-pepper beard bobbing up and down. Near the bottom right-hand corner he spots an ant wearing a hard hat and carrying a bullhorn.
“I think of that one as Judy Bonds,” Haltom said. “She was a person with a bullhorn.”
The “insect Bonds” is surrounded by other activist creatures; a salamander holds a miniature wind turbine and bees flit around. This hive of activity is a tribute to the grassroots network of activists that formed in Appalachia in the 1990s and 2000s, largely to raise awareness of the health and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal. The practice, which requires blowing the tops off mountains to reach the coal below, has disturbed an estimated 1.5 million acres, an area roughly the size of Delaware, and buried thousands of miles of streams.
Coal River Mountain Watch and Bonds were central figures in the movement.
“We had a lot of cross pollination of ideas and various tactics and things that we’ve tried and done in varying levels of success or frustration over the years,” Haltom said. “So many of these things are things that Judy Bonds had to say.”
A coal miner’s daughter and waitress at a local Pizza Hut, Bonds and her family were the last to evacuate from her own hometown of Marfork Hollow, which was surrounded by mountaintop removal. In 2003, she was awarded the Goldman Prize, often referred to as the green Nobel.
In her acceptance speech, Bonds spoke of using activism to break coal’s deep ties in Appalachia and to seek a better way of life for those living in the communities neighboring mining.
“Organize, educate, motivate, mentor young children,” she said. “Children take back your earth.”
For the last 20 years, those have been the tenets of Coal River Mountain Watch, said Vivian Stockman with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
“It takes a lot of courage to stand up when you’re right in the middle of it and that’s what Coal River Mountain Watch has been doing for its two decades of existence,” she said.
A simple wooden sign hangs above the office entrance with the group’s logo and a motto: “Remembering the past, working for the future.” As the group hits the 20-year mark its leaders are taking stock of accomplishments, some painful losses, and the work ahead.
The group counts some hard-fought victories in its 20 years of existence, including securing a new campus for Marsh Fork Elementary School, which was previously located in the shadow of an active mining operation owned by Massey Energy.
An earthen dam and impoundment sitting above the school was permitted to hold 2.8 billion gallons of liquid coal waste. The waste pond and dam were constructed by the same mining company that was responsible for a similar impoundment in Martin County, Kentucky, that failed in 2000, sending millions of gallons of slurry into two tributaries of the Tug Fork River.
In addition to the active mountaintop removal mine, the school was also near a coal silo and railroad line. Concerned advocates feared students were being exposed to coal and silica dust as well as diesel emissions.
While some children reported illness, others in the community were concerned the school could close and students would be sent elsewhere.
Coal River Mountain Watch’s playbook included protest, letter-writing campaigns and the use of the legal system. To raise awareness around Marsh Fork, In 2006, one of the group’s members, Ed Wiley, walked from Charleston to Washington, D.C., to raise the issue to West Virginia’s Congressional leadership. Ultimately, a new campus was approved in 2010.
While some of the group’s tactics in courts and protests were confrontational, other actions sought cooperation. Bonds made some unlikely allies, like Mike Caputo, an organizer with the United Mine Workers. The two teamed up to reduce the weight of coal trucks. The over-sized vehicles barreled down steep mountain roads, killing at least 14 people over a two-year period. Caputo, now a delegate in West Virginia’s Legislature, said Bonds was dedicated to her community.
“Even when we disagreed, I miss her dearly,” he said. “You look up the word activist and you’ll see Judy Bonds’ picture beside it, because she was a true activist.”
Bonds died of cancer in 2011. After two decades of activism — some of which elicited threats to members’ lives and personal safety — today Coal River Mountain Watch had yet to see its primary goal of ending mountaintop removal mining realized. And while the plight of the Appalachian coal miner remains a politically hot touchstone, nationally, the spotlight on mountaintop removal has faded.
“It’s been tough lately because a lot of people think mountaintop removal is over and they don’t really grasp why we still do this,” Haltom said.
He said donors have shifted their priorities to other causes, which has resulted in fewer resources. Coal River Mountain Watch’s staff has scaled back. And while it’s an asset to be on the ground, the nonprofit also faces fundraising challenges due to its isolated location.
The group was central in securing a National Academy of Sciences study into the health impacts of mountaintop removal mining. In 2017, it was abruptly canceled by the Trump administration. The organization has also lobbied repeatedly for the passage of the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act, which would bar mining until a health study is done. The bill received a hearing in the House in 2019, but otherwise has had little traction in Congress.
Still, in recent years, research has validated many of fears about the health impacts of mountaintop removal. Studies show a correlation between mountaintop removal and high rates of cancer, lung disease, and birth defects in neighboring communities.
“The blasting dust is deadly. I mean it’s silica,” Haltom said. “We’ve known silica is a killer, but for some reason people think that Appalachians are immune to it.”
New research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released this month shows surface mine dust contains more silica than does dust in underground coal mines. The findings come at a time when the most severe form of black lung disease, once thought to be nearly eradicated, is surging in Central Appalachia.
While the work may be harder, Coal River Mountain Watch is still doing it. At their solar-powered headquarters, the group models possible alternatives to coal mining, such as hemp farming and beekeeping. And they’re instilling in a younger generation a passion for the mountains around them.
To mark its 20 years, Coal River Mountain Watch hosted a creek cleanup. Dozens of kids and adults crashed through Peachtree Creek gathering bottles, plastic bags and even a kid-sized swimming pool. After more than an hour of tough work, volunteers took a dip in Peachtree Falls.
At a barbecue after the cleanup, volunteers munched on hot dogs and burgers. Watching children play in the nearby creek, Haltom reflected on Coal River Mountain Watch’s legacy.
“I think we’ve come a long way in helping people understand there’s a better way of living, you know,” he said. “Don’t treat your community like it’s a disposable item.”