Appalachian environmental activist Maria Gunnoe will be awarded the twenty-second University of Michigan Wallenberg Medal on Tuesday, October 23, 2012, at 7:30 p.m., in Rackham Auditorium. After the medal presentation, Gunnoe will give the Wallenberg Lecture.
In 1996, Gunnoe, a lifelong resident of Bob White, Boone County, West Virginia, began her fight against environmentally devastating mountaintop removal coal mining and valley fill operations in Appalachia. Boone County is one of the most active mountaintop removal regions in the United States. To date the practice has destroyed an estimated 500 mountains and buried or polluted well over 2,000 miles of rivers and streams.
Gunnoe’s family came to Boone County in the early 1800s, when her ancestors escaped the forced removal of their Cherokee peoples from Georgia and settled safely in the fertile hollows of central Appalachia. She comes from a long line of coal miners, including her Cherokee grandfather, who in 1950 purchased the land where her home stands.
In 2000, a 1,200-acre mountaintop removal mine came to the ridge above Gunnoe’s home. Today her house sits directly below a ten-story valley fill that contains two toxic ponds of mine waste. Her property has flooded seven times since the mine opened. Most of her home was destroyed in a 2003 flood and her yard was covered in toxic coal sludge. Her well and ground water have been contaminated by mine waste, and her family now uses bottled water for cooking and drinking.
Gunnoe is a fearless advocate for environmental and social justice. At great personal risk, she rallies communities that face the destruction of their natural environment, and works to educate and build citizen advocacy. A medical technician by training and a former waitress, Gunnoe first volunteered with local advocacy organizations and then began working for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) to educate her neighbors about the environmental dangers of mountaintop removal. She organized meetings and trained community members to read mining permits, write letters to the editor, and speak with the media. She also showed them how to organize nonviolent protests and created neighborhood groups to monitor coal companies for illegal behavior and report toxic spills. She is in the vanguard of activists who recognize that environmental justice is critical for the survival of small rural communities that face powerful political and economic interests.
In May 2011, Gunnoe wrote on the blog ThinkProgress that:
“Neither the coal industry nor our politicians have kept their promises of prosperity to the people. The people in these mountains are being exploited for the coal. I have seen all of the prosperity leave these Appalachian communities on coal trucks and coal trains, and what we have to show for it is polluted water in our wells and streams, depopulated communities, and sick people with inadequate health care… . Today our mountain culture is under attack.”
In return for her passionate activism, mine managers have singled out Gunnoe as an enemy of mine workers and their jobs. She has received threats on her life and her children are frequently harassed at school. Her daughter’s dog was shot dead, wanted posters featuring her photo have appeared in local stores, and she has had to take serious measures to protect her family and property.
Maria Gunnoe’s advocacy has led to closure of mines in the region and stricter regulations for the industry. In 2009, she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work.
2012 marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Raoul Wallenberg’s birth. A 1935 graduate of the University of Michigan College of Architecture, Swedish diplomat Wallenberg saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews near the end of World War II. Working in Budapest in the late 1930s, Wallenberg came into contact with many Jewish refugees from Europe. In 1944, at the request of Jewish organizations and the American War Refugee Board, the Swedish Foreign Ministry sent Wallenberg on a rescue mission to Budapest. Over the course of six months, Wallenberg issued thousands of protective passports. He confronted Hungarian and German guards to secure the release of Jews whom he claimed were under Swedish protection, placing some 15,000 Jews into thirty-one Safe Houses.
After reporting to Soviet headquarters in Budapest on January 17, 1945, Wallenberg vanished into the Soviet Gulag. Although the Russians claim that Wallenberg died in 1947, the results of numerous investigations into his whereabouts remain inconclusive.