In Appalachia, Women Put Their Bodies on the Line for the Land

Women turn to environmental activism later in life due to health concerns, deep community investments, and, according to 75-year-old Peggy Gish, because they have "more freedom to get around, to have time—to get arrested!”

[Photo: A woman sits and waits at a clinic]
Women’s health is the most overlooked—and precarious—when considering exposure to chemicals. John Moore/Getty Images

Ollie Combs, a 61-year-old widow in Knott County, Kentucky, sat in front of bulldozers with her two sons at her side. It was 1965. Determined to not let the coal industry strip-mine her family land, she remained unmoved; officials were forced to physically carry her away—an image that drew national attention. So did, more recently, the story of Theresa “Red” Terry, a 61-year-old Roanoke County, Virginia, resident. In 2018, Terry lived in a “tree sit” alongside her grown daughter for more than a month, protesting the Mountain Valley Pipeline construction through her private property.

Today, there’s Jill Antares Hunkler, 43, of Belmont County, Ohio, and 69-year-old Roxanne Groff of Athens, Ohio: two of the women working loudly and publicly to protect land in Appalachia from fracking. Fracking operations, which release and capture trapped natural gas deposits in sedimentary rock, concentrate in geologic reserves covering the area west of the Appalachian Mountains. Environmental disasters have been linked to fracking, including water source pollution, air quality issues, soil contamination, and earthquakes.

At a time when Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned due to “ethics controversies,” Appalachian women like Hunkler and Groff continue to lead their communities in efforts to protect local environments—partly due to the lack of protection from government agencies, and partly because such work by women is a strong component of Appalachia’s history.

“We’re Going to Put Our Bodies on the Line”

Hunkler gave testimony at the first-ever “Ohio Human Rights Tribunal” in 2017, where she said: “I have lived in the Slope Creek area for over 30 years …. I decided to build my own house on the opposite shore of my childhood home, where Slope Creek flows through the yard.” Hunkler said she “never imagined that my quiet country way of life would disappear.” 

But then a hydraulic fracturing compressor station began operating close to her home. The MarkWest Humphreys, Ohio, Compressor Station opened solely to service the needs of the high-volume hydraulic fracturing industry, changing the pressure of the gas in a pipeline in order to transport it. Earlier this year, a Clean Air Act settlement with MarkWest ordered the company to modify or change its operations due to safety concerns with volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions standards.

MarkWest has had other complaints. In 2014, the Observer-Reporter wrote a piece exposing that one of MarkWest’s compressor stations had been built in Donegal Township, Pennsylvania, without a building permit, which had been denied due to safety concerns. In a bold move, the remotely controlled, unmanned station began operations with generators since the town would not allow the use of local electricity.

Grassroots groups such as the Concerned Barnesville Area Residents, near where Hunkler lives, plan monthly meetings as well as actions such as the Paddle Against Petro Rally. The rally, in Pittsburgh in June, where Hunkler gave a speech, protested a gathering of industry executives at the local convention center. Other events such as Fracking, Your Health, and Industry Liability, held in Cambridge, Ohio, in April, educate residents about environmental concerns and residents’ rights.

“Citizens of this country are becoming aware, and many acutely aware, of the energy movement,” said Groff in an interview with Rewire.News. “We’ve moved from Big Coal to Big Oil—both corporate structures having enormous control over our political system, people’s beliefs, the lies and myths that these two corporate structures have portrayed people like myself as evil and eco-terrorists, and themselves as the saviors and heroes of our economy.”

Groff, a member of Athens County Fracking Action Network since 2012, mostly works against injection wells, which are used to hold the waste from fracking operations. She focuses on the wells in her county, including one of the largest injection well sites in Ohio.

Another Athens County, Ohio, resident, 75-year-old Peggy Gish, has a history of helping. Gish began organizing in civil rights activism fresh out of college, when she lived in Chicago. Fifteen years ago, she started to focus on human rights issues. A resident of Ohio for the last 40 years, she began working with Appalachia Resist, a Central Appalachia-based direct action group focused on environmental protection. For Gish, these issues—civil rights, human rights, and environmental justice—are all interrelated.

Gish helps manage communications for Appalachia Resist, but she has also participated in direct action, despite being warned of arrest. So far, despite once blocking large trucks transporting frack waste from reaching a well site, and another time working as on-site support for an activist chained to a fence, she has avoided arrest, though it does not deter her.

“Sometimes these actions are symbolic,” she said in an interview with Rewire.News. “Sometimes we actually do block access. We want to make a strong statement to say the people of southeast Ohio are not going to tolerate this anymore. We’re going to put our bodies on the line for this.”

Hunkler continues to pursue legal action, filing a notice of intent to sue MarkWest for “significant and ongoing violations of the Clean Air Act and Ohio Pollution Control Act.” She also joined two other lawsuits, one filed with the Sierra Club and the Ohio Environmental Council, among others. The second lawsuit was filed against the Bureau of Land Management in an attempt to stop fracking operations in the Wayne National Forest—the only national forest in Ohio.

Women’s Health Is Overlooked

Health concerns have partially driven women like Hunkler and Gish to act. Women’s health is the most overlooked—and precarious—when considering exposure to chemicals. According to findings from the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals: “Of the 87,000 chemicals registered for commerce in the United States, only one-tenth have been tested for potential health effects. Of those that have been tested, only a portion have been assessed for reproductive health effects.” 

Concerns related to exposure to certain toxic substances include early or delayed puberty in girls, fertility issues, birth defects, and fetal death. According to a 2014 article in the Guardian, “Scientists in the United States found that many of the 750 or so chemicals that are pumped into the ground at high pressure to fracture shale rock were associated with fertility and developmental problems.” But because a time lag often happens between exposure and adverse health effects, scientists urge precaution in linking environmental exposure to illness.

In Ohio, where these women work in their communities to uphold the same mission as the EPA (“to protect human health and the environment”), how is the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) responding to health and other concerns?

ODNR’s Environmental Assessment Program directs a citizen with a complaint to the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management, which will send out a geologist to investigate and submit a report to the landowner. There are no further instructions—on how to investigate a chemical presence, or how to pursue action if contaminants are found.

“My family and I have been forced to leave our home,” Hunkler’s Tribunal testimony reads. “Those of us living in these once peaceful hills are not only dealing with negative health impacts. We are also experiencing explosions, fires, contamination of streams, including the death of 70,000 fish, gas leaks that caused lengthy evacuations, air and noise pollution, unsafe roadways due to industry traffic, springs and well water contamination, and depletion of our water supplies by industry withdrawals from our reservoirs, ponds, and streams.”

Gish has had a similar experience with energy industries in Appalachia. “They have been notoriously disrespectful of the local people to have clean air, clean water, etc.,” she said. “They somehow think it’s OK to take and use the resources that belong to all of us.”

Groff assigns responsibility for this misuse to local politicians: “With high poverty rates and lack of job opportunities, these kinds of industrial monsters are unbelievably welcomed,” she said. “One cannot blame people who need to put food on the table for wanting a job, but the lack of foresight by our elected officials who grab on that ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ mantra without looking at the long-term detriment to our communities is terribly shortsighted.”

More Freedom to Get Arrested

Though the presence of the fracking industry may be relatively new to Appalachia, threats to the land are not. Countless women have worked to safeguard Appalachia for generations, among them Cindy Rank of West Virginia. Co-founder of the group Friends of the Little Kanawha, she played an invaluable role in the first-ever citizen lawsuit filed over a mountaintop removal mine: In 1972, a group of women gathered in a surface-mine protest, blockading equipment at Clear Creek, in Knott County, Kentucky. They risked their lives as unknown men violently attacked their support group in the night. The women’s direct-action efforts received national news coverage from papers like the New York Times.

In an interview with Rewire.News, Hunkler talked of her own grandmother: “Mary Diegmiller Hunkler, [who] was born and raised in the Wayne National Forest, where parcels of this forest have been leased for fracking.” Hunkler’s great-grandmother helped design the local memorial park, planting most of the now-towering trees.

Her female ancestors’ “wisdom, caring, and generous spirits” have affected her deeply. She said, “I now carry their gifts.” Gish agrees, seeing “a matriarch as a seasoned woman who is in the community [and] uses their wisdom, their energy, to try and protect the earth’s resources and the health of the whole community. When I see it that way, I think yes that’s what I’m trying to do. I have more freedom to get around, to have time—to get arrested!”

There are many reasons more mature women step into activism, including simply having fewer responsibilities and more time, more investments into their communities. Groff, who has mostly worked with groups of women in environmental efforts, believes that age begets wisdom, and sharing that experience is invaluable. For her, it’s all about creativity and a protective spirit. “I enjoy immensely working with groups of women,” she said.

She also sees young women getting into activism. “I look at younger groups and am so re-inspired that the generation behind us is so fearless and willing to raise their families at the same time that they’re fighting for the social and environmental justice that we all need to survive.”

Groff recognizes that fight as especially strong in the Appalachian region: “The fierceness of the people and people’s history of fighting for what is right, versus how far apart we live from each other and having very little political clout, having very little financial backing in the efforts we engage in.”

Hunkler agrees. “Grassroots movements and people power is the only way we can stop the devastation of fracking.”