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Raleigh activist wins $50,000 for fight against mountaintop removal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Bo Webb returned to his native Raleigh County in February 2001, he had hoped for a peaceful retirement at the homeplace where he grew up. Then, he started hearing the blasting, not far from his home near Naoma.

"I had heard the term mountaintop removal, but didn't really relate to it other than strip mining," Webb recalled last week. "I went up the mountain on an ATV and was flabbergasted by what I saw."

Webb started volunteering for the local group Coal River Mountain Watch, organizing protests, writing letters and doing whatever he could think of to try to help stop mountaintop removal.

Today, Webb is being honored for his effort, with a $50,000 award called the Purpose Prize. The prize, given by the organization Civic Ventures, goes to social entrepreneurs more than 60 years old who are using their experience and passion to make an impact on society's biggest challenges.

In a news release, Civic Ventures described Webb as "a former owner of a tool-and-die shop who returned to his native West Virginia for a peaceful retirement, only to find himself fighting a coal industry engaged in the destructive, disruptive practice of mountaintop removal."

Others recognized with Purpose Prize included an Ohio woman who is helping neighbors avoid foreclosure by working out better mortgage terms with their banks, a Pennsylvania woman who organizes the donation of art supplies to urban public schools, and a North Carolina man who works with schools to come up with creative strategies for teaching seriously disabled students.

"Purpose Prize winners are courageous, creative, passionate and strategic -- all the qualities needed to make headway on some of our greatest challenges," said Marc Freedman, co-founder of the Purpose Prize. "It is the combination of these qualities, their decades of experience, and the sheer size of the baby boomer population that make social innovators in their encore careers a promising and invaluable asset in solving our most pressing problems."

Among other things, Civic Ventures notes Webb's work raising money to build a new Marsh Fork Elementary School away from a Massey Energy coal-processing site, and his involvement in bringing high-profile scientists and activists to West Virginia to protest mountaintop removal.

Webb's family lived in Raleigh County until he was 12, when poor economic conditions in 1960 led his father to take a job with General Motors and move the family to Cleveland. After high school, Webb joined the Marines and spent a year in Vietnam.

After the service, he married and learned the craft of tool and die maker, starting his own machining and metal stamping business in 1980.

Twenty years later, Webb bought his grandmother's place near Naoma and moved back to the home he's now trying to protect. Webb doesn't hold back on his views about the coal industry and coal company executives.

"I watched my dad slave his life away for those kind and then be forced to leave when they no longer needed him," Webb said. "He went to work in a coal mine when he was 11 years old because his family was so poor. The coal industry takes advantage of people, always has. It's the way they do business.

"I work at this because it is such an injustice," Webb said, adding that he planned to put his $50,000 prize toward his work.

"The Purpose Prize will help me continue my mission to end mountaintop removal," he said.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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