MORGANTOWN, W.VA. — In Maria Gunnoe's 11-year war over the strip mining she says has ruined her homestead, there have been casualties: Family dogs have been poisoned and shot, and her truck's fuel tank has been stuffed with sand.
Yet she keeps fighting to stop mountaintop removal mining. And for confronting the coal industry in Appalachia, she is the 2009 North American winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
Given to six people annually -- one on each inhabited continent -- the Goldman is the largest award of its kind, with a $150,000 cash prize. The winners will be recognized today in San Francisco.
"I never even knew I was an environmentalist," Gunnoe said with a chuckle.
Though raised to mind her own business, she was also taught to fight when attacked. That's how she sees the destruction of her gardens and orchard.
"The coal industry calls this 'coal country,' " she said. "I call it God's country."
Mountaintop removal mining has grown increasingly common in central Appalachia. Coal operators blast the tops of mountains to expose seams that are otherwise hard to reach, flattening ridge lines, then dumping debris into valleys below.
Gunnoe's home in southwestern West Virginia sits below a valley fill and has been flooded with coal waste seven times since 2000.
"She's one of the bravest activists that we've seen, putting her life on the line," said Lorrae Rominger, deputy director of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
Gunnoe also shows how the environmental movement has changed.
"It can't be just about standing on a stage and protesting anymore. You have to start working within your local governments and your state and national governments to get policy and legislation," Rominger said.