Julia “Judy” Bonds, a West Virginia environmental activist who garnered national attention for her homespun opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining, has died, the environmental group Coal River Mountain Watch said. She was 58 and had cancer.
Bonds, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch, died Monday evening at a hospital in Charleston, W.Va.
A descendant of generations of West Virginia coal miners, Bonds became known as a passionate and fearless opponent of mountaintop removal mining that she blamed for devastating the environment and the lives of coalfield residents. The mining practice involves blasting and scraping away mountaintops to expose multiple layers of coal.
In 2003, Bonds won the $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize for her activism. The international prize is awarded annually to one person each from Africa, Asia, Europe, island nations and North, South and Central America.
“When powerful people pursue profits at the expense of human rights and our environment, they have failed as leaders,” Bonds said after receiving the award. “Responsible citizens must step forward, not just to point the way, but to lead the way to a better world.”
Said Vernon Haltom, co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch: “The thing about Judy, she never backed down from anything.”
A prime target of Bonds’ activism was Massey Energy Co. She blamed the Richmond, Va.-based mine operator for the devastation in the Coal River Valley’s Marfork Hollow and other Appalachian communities.
Bonds regularly testified against mountaintop removal coal mining at regulatory hearings, filed lawsuits against surface mining and led protests against Massey. In 2009, she was slapped by a Massey supporter while marching to protest the presence of a Massey coal slurry dam and storage silo near a West Virginia elementary school.
Massey is among the region’s largest coal producers and operates numerous mountaintop mines.
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 this week.
“We extend our sympathies to the family and friends of Judy Bonds,” he said in an e-mail to the Associated Press.
Bonds was born at her family’s home in Marfork Hollow in 1952. She worked as a waitress and manager of a Pizza Hut and convenience stores before taking a part-time job with Coal River Mountain Watch.
Her family was one of the last to leave Marfork Hollow after Massey began mining in the area.
“We love our life in the hollows,” Bonds told a Times reporter in 2002. “There is nothing like being in the hollows. You feel snuggled. You feel safe. It seems like God has his arms around you.”
After winning the national Goldman prize, Bonds told the Associated Press that her activism arose from the day her grandson stood in the stream her family had enjoyed for six generations with his little fists full of dead fish — and dead fish floating all around.
“‘What’s wrong with these fish?’ he asked. That day I knew that if I didn’t do something, that would be the future of our children,” she said.
Bonds’ survivors include a daughter and her grandson.