Obituary: Julia 'Judy' Bonds / Environmental activist who opposed mountaintop mining

Died Jan. 3, 2011

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia environmental activist Julia "Judy" Bonds, who gained national attention for her homespun opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining, has died, months after diagnosis of a late-stage cancer.

Ms. Bonds, director of the Coal River Mountain Watch, died Monday in a Charleston hospital. She was 58.

A descendant of generations of West Virginia coal miners, Ms. Bonds became an activist after deciding the state's coal industry had taken too great a toll on the environment. Mountaintop removal mining involves blasting the tops of mountains to expose layers of coal. In most cases, the mountain, called overburden, is dumped into ravines, often burying streams.

Her passionate and fearless opposition to this process earned her the $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize in 2003. The international prize is awarded to one person each from Africa, Asia, Europe, island nations and North, South and Central America. She has testified at the United Nations, before Congress and spoken at universities and symposiums.

"The thing about Judy, she never backed down from anything," said Vernon Haltom, her co-director, recalling that she once chased a bear away armed only with her grandson's track shoe. "That's the kind of courage she had and the kind of courage that she needed to stand up to great odds."

In a tribute in The Huffington Post, author Jeff Biggers called Ms. Bonds "tireless, funny, an inspiring orator and a savvy and brilliant community organizer. As the godmother of the anti-mountaintop removal movement, she gave birth to a new generation of clean energy and human rights activists across the nation."

In the same tribute, Bob Kincaid, president of the Coal River Mountain Watch board, called Ms. Bonds "our Hillbilly Moses. She knew better than anyone that we will make it to the Promised Land: out of the poisonous bondage of coal companies."

A prime target of her activism was Massey Energy Co. Ms. Bonds blamed the Richmond, Va.-based corporation for the devastation in the Coal River Valley's Marfork Hollow and other communities.

Ms. Bonds, of Rock Creek, regularly testified at regulatory hearings, filed lawsuits and led protests against Massey. In 2009, a Massey supporter slapped her as she marched alongside actress Daryl Hannah and NASA scientist James Hansen to protest the presence of a Massey coal slurry dam and storage silo near the Marsh Fork Elementary school.

Massey is among the region's largest coal producers and operates numerous mountaintop mines.

Ms. Bonds labeled Massey an "outlaw" after Coal River Mountain Watch, the Sierra Club and other groups filed a lawsuit last April, accusing the company of violating the Clean Water Act.

Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater offered condolences Tuesday.

"We extend our sympathies to the family and friends of Judy Bonds," he said in an e-mail to the Associated Press.

After winning the national Goldman prize, Ms. Bonds told the AP that her campaign was born the day her grandson stood in the stream her family had enjoyed for six generations with his little fists full of dead fish.

"That day," she said, "I knew that if I didn't do something, that would be the future of our children."

"Judy was one of the first ones that I met that opposed the practice of blasting away our mountains and covering up our streams," said fellow Goldman winner Maria Gunnoe. "She helped to make us all realize that being a hillbilly's a proud thing and there's reasons behind that. We're very unique people and we have the ability to make it when other people can't. Judy helped me to recognize the value of our culture to our children's future."

Coal River Mountain Watch had not finalized plans for any memorial, Mr. Haltom said.

Post-Gazette reporter Diana Nelson Jones contributed.


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