It's 4:29 PM. The blast will go off at any minute. Even though you grew up hearing the sound, it's still jarring. You have no choice but to breathe in the dust. When you turn on your tap, red water flows out. It smells like sulfur, so you don't drink it, but you shower in it and use it to wash your dishes and clothes.
You know it's affected your health. You have gastrointestinal problems, including a bad case of gastritis. Your neighbors are getting cancer and dying. You know this isn't right, but you're not supposed to speak out, question what's going on or do anything about it.
This is 21-year-old Junior Walk's reality. The people living in his West Virginia coal mining community are expected to go about their business, keep their heads down and stay silent. “The coal companies control everything you do,” he says. “There's been a system of economic slavery in place in Appalachia for the past 150 years. The coal industry has had the people under its thumb for that long. It's so ingrained into the culture. Folks are afraid to stand up and make their voices heard and are afraid to be associated with anybody that does.”
Never miss another story
Get the news you want, delivered to your inbox every day.
Walk was born and raised in the Southern part of West Virginia on the banks of the Coal River. In his community, you have three options: join the military, take a minimum-wage job in a fast food joint or work in a coal mine. If you're one of the lucky few who can afford to go to college, you'll most likely leave the area and never return.
Walk had no idea how to apply for college or scholarships, so following in his father's footsteps, he took a job with Massey Energy (now Alpha Natural Resources) after high school. He quit six months later. After a year of working at various minimum-wage jobs, he found work as a security guard at a mountaintop removal site. “I felt like the most miserable human being for being part of that.”
He says he was the smallest cog in a machine that was destroying his home and killing his people. “The people at the bottom of that mountain were getting sick and dying. That's what really kicked me in the rear end,” he says. “I couldn't sit on my hands anymore and let this go on.”
Walk contacted his hero, the late environmental leader Judy Bonds, began volunteering with Coal River Mountain Watch, and anonymously wrote critical articles about the coal industry for their newsletter. His parents, whose income comes from Massey Energy, supported him as long as he stayed anonymous. As soon as he decided to put his name on his pieces and publicly speak out, they kicked him out of the house. “My father would've been fired,” he says. “He wouldn't have been able to take care of my little sister and mother.”
Since then, Walk has been on a mission to educate the public about the degradation caused by surface coal mining. He's now outreach coordinator for Coal River Mountain Watch. He attended the Keystone XL protests in Washington in August. In July, he was arrested for participating in a tree sit-in to stop blasting, and he's being sued by Massey Energy for trespassing. His court date is scheduled for November 14. He faces six months in jail.
Walk has spent the past year traveling around the country speaking at colleges and conferences and he just received the Brower Youth Award, which honors young people in North America for their outstanding activism and achievements in the fields of social and environmental justice advocacy. The Earth Island Institute established the Brower Youth Awards to honor founder and legendary activist David Brower.
“It's been an insane experience,” he says. “I hardly ever got out of the holler before I started this work. I wouldn't talk to anybody. Look nobody in the eye. It got me so mad, I knew I could do anything.”
Walk says the youth he meets across the country are more aware. They want information. They want to do something and “take a stand for a more progressive world.” He believes that if the “mainstream media would step up and do its job, we'd have a revolution on our hands.”
Listen to three Brower Youth Awardees discuss their work and what inspires them on Your Call.
Junior Walk, 21
Walk is an environmental activist who paid a high price for speaking out against the coal mining industry in West Virginia.
Tania Pulido, 21
Pulido is site coordinator of the Berryland garden in the Iron Triangle neighborhood of Richmond, California. The garden provides fresh organic food in a neighborhood that has access to more alcohol than produce and is plagued by industrial pollution. It also serves as a space where youth can take summer workshops and learn about issues like climate change and environmental racism. Pulido has also worked on several campaigns to hold Chevron accountable for the destruction it has caused her community.
Madison Vorva, 15
In 2007, Vorva and her friend Rhiannon Tomtishen learned that the orangutans' habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia was being destroyed at alarming rates in order to plant oil plantations. Palm oil is used in everything from candy bars to cosmetics. After learning that palm oil is also in Girl Scout Cookies, they started a campaign to urge the Girl Scouts to use an eco-friendly oil. They also created Project ORANGS (Orangutans Really Appreciate and Need Girl Scouts). They have since partnered with Rainforest Action Network and co-authored a petition that has generated more than 70,000 emails to the Girls Scouts headquarters.