'Judy' Bonds, Who Helped Make Strip Mining A National Issue, Has Died

January 4, 2011

Howard Berkes

The "godmother" of Appalachia's mountaintop removal movement has died of cancer at age 58.

Julia "Judy" Bonds is credited with helping to turn into a national issue the widespread strip mining of West Virginia mountains. The attention she helped bring to the practice is also credited with convincing some major banks to limit or discontinue financing for what activists call "mountaintop removal."

Bonds' "most compelling trait [was] the powerful combination of fearlessness, righteousness and humor," says Jeff Biggers, author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland.

She "galvanized a generation of women leaders, coalfield residents and clean energy activists to stand up to Big Coal outlaws, no matter the cost," Biggers adds.

Biggers writes more about the legacy of Judy Bonds on The Huffington Post.

A coal miner's daughter, Bonds became alarmed when the West Virginia hollow where her family has lived for six generations was threatened by a Massey Energy strip mine and its massive waste impoundment dam. She told reporters she was inspired to act when her grandson found dead fish in the stream in Marfork Hollow and when he described an escape plan if the dam above them collapsed.

"How do you tell a child that his life is a sacrifice for corporate greed?" she asked a reporter for the environmental website Grist in 2003.

Bonds and her family left the family's home and cemetery behind two years before that, citing the threat of Massey's mountaintop removal project.  Massey was a major target for Bonds and the group she directed, Coal River Mountain Watch.

In announcing Bonds' death, the group's Vernon Haltom claimed, "Judy's years in Marfork holler, where she remained in her ancestral home as long as she could, subjected her to Massey Energy's airborne toxic dust and led to the cancer that wasted no time in taking its toll." The disease had spread throughout her body. She died Monday evening.

Massey Energy's Shane Harvey, the company's Vice President and General Counsel, says in a brief statement, "We extend our sympathies to Judy's family and friends."

Bonds spoke with NPR during a lobbying trip to Washington in 2008.

"We are educating America, quite frankly, about the dirty little secret in Appalachia," Bonds said.  "And Americans are appalled by what's happening in Appalachia.  They can't believe it."

Tributes to Bonds and her legacy are posted on Ken Ward's Coal Tattoo blog at the Charleston Gazette.

"She was a true force of nature," writes Mari-Lynn Evans, producer of Coal Country, a film about activism in Appalachian coalfields.  "She inspired thousands to stand up for their beliefs and changed our lives forever."

In 2003, Bonds was named the North American winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, which awards $150,000 to grassroots activists on six inhabited continents.

(Click here to see more of the reporting that Howard Berkes and other NPR journalists have been doing about Mine Safety In America.) Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.