Coal Tattoo

Coal pornography: What is this all really about?

Photo from iLoveMountains via House report.

I think often about the incredible irony that Don Blankenship named his political action group, “And for the Sake of the Kids.”   How about “for the sake of” the orphans of the many terrible mining deaths caused by production-over-safety view of coal mining advanced by Blankenship during his leadership at Massey Energy?

Or how about “for the sake of” kids like Makayla Urias? She  got her five minutes of unfortunate fame this week, when a photo of her in a bathtub full of mining-tainted water got bounced all around the Internet in the latest media skirmish in the campaign against mountaintop removal coal mining. Haven’t seen the photo? I’m surprised. You can check it out yourself here, on the website of Katie Falkenberg, the freelance photographer who took the shot. UPDATED: The photo has been removed from Ms. Falkenberg’s website, and a note there says, “The family has declined media request to use this photo; it has therefore been removed from the photo essay to honor their wishes.”

If I seem a little troubled by all of this, I guess I am.  I’ve got bathtub photos of my son. Most parents have them. Such moments are later treasured by parents, and bring eye-rolling embarrassment or worse from the kids.  But not many kids will get stuck with hearing the story of the time their bath-time photo was not only paraded around the halls of Congress, tossed around all matter of websites, but also prompted a totally absurd child pornography investigation by the Capitol police.

The story made it into the mainstream media this morning, with this write-up in the Denver Post:

An award-winning coal-mining activist was questioned for 45 minutes by police on suspicion of child pornography after U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn’s energy and mineral resources subcommittee decided a photo she submitted of a child in foul bathwater was inappropriate.

Photo by Tom Dusenbery

Maria Gunnoe of West Virginia had been invited by Lamborn — a Colorado Springs Republican and the subcommittee’s chairman — to testify at his hearing Friday on the Spruce Coal Mine in her state. It was the fourth time Gunnoe had been in front of the committee and the second time she had been there at the behest of Lamborn.

Gunnoe, a grandmother, said that when she has spoken to the committee previously, she never felt as if members made eye contact, so she decided to bring a photo by a freelance photojournalist of a child taking a bath in dirty water — allegedly polluted by coal mining — to put up on the panels above her head.

“I was drawn to the photo because I think it really captured what happened here,” Gunnoe said from her home Tuesday.

The general story, as I understand it, goes like this:  Committee staff and/or members decided the photo was somehow “inappropriate” and directed that Gunnoe not be allowed to show it during her hearing testimony. Then after the hearing, she got hauled into a nearby room and questioned by a U.S. Capitol Police officer. Republicans or their staffers had apparently suggested this photo was child pornography. I’m still a little baffled that one of the environmental group lawyers or lobbyists who might have been present at the time didn’t just step in and advise Maria not to go with those police officers unless she was under arrest. Then again, who would have possibly imagined the police going along with something as nutty as this.

AP photo

The Denver Post article added some interesting details, which paint Lamborn as trying to distance himself from all of this (without his actually saying his staff acted inappropriately for their role in this harassment of a citizen of these United States):

Lamborn — who leads the energy and mineral resources subcommittee under the House Committee on Natural Resources — said he heard about the photo before the hearing and decided to pull it from the planned presentation without looking at it. As chairman of the subcommittee, he is in charge of the hearing, the witnesses and the staff.

“I accept the judgment of professional staff,” Lamborn said Tuesday. “If it’s inappropriate, I don’t think I should be viewing it. The fewer people who viewed it, the better.”

Lamborn on Tuesday said he still hadn’t seen the photo and didn’t intend to.

Now one thing that bothers me about the photo is it seems unlikely to me that little Makayla ever took too many baths in that kind of water. Her parents, Rully and Erica Urias, explained in their own words on the iLoveMountains website:

... We live on Island Creek of Grapevine in Pike County. Our home and our community is surrounded by coal mining going on in every direction in the mountains around Island Creek.

There is no aspect of our lives that coal mining has not affected in some negative way. We used to live in a beautiful place. When you drove down the road it was like driving through a tunnel of trees. It was beautiful, like a fairy tale experience. Now it is a sad and ugly place. All the trees have been cut down along the road so the coal company could move in their giant equipment.

That was just the beginning. The road has now gotten so bad from the coal company’s use that school buses won’t even run up the gravel road to our community. And we hope no one up here ever needs an ambulance. We either eat the dust from the coal trucks or hope we don’t get bogged down in the muck on wet days. Our neighbor Doug Justice twice had to use his own equipment to remove a mud slide that came into the road off the coal company’s mining operation.

The water from our well has been ruined, too. We can’t drink it and now we’re even afraid to give Makayla a bath. She loves to take baths and like most children will try to drink the water. We can’t let her play with any toys that she can put water into and drink from because of the contamination of our water. We bought her a kiddie swimming pool last summer and filled it up and it had black specs floating all through it. Our daughter cannot even enjoy her own yard.

Isn’t that bad enough? That a couple of young parents in the richest country in the world — living in a community where untold natural resources wealth is hauled away every day — don’t have decent water in which to enjoy the wonderful ritual of bath-time with their child?

Then there’s this notion that the GOP committee leadership was publicly accusing Maria Gunnoe of child pornography, a theory pushed by the Mother Jones headline, “GOP Ally of Big Coal Smears Environmental Activist With Kiddie Porn Accusation.”

As best I’ve been able to tell, Rep. Lamborn and his staff did not go public with any allegation of this kind (it’s bad enough that they brought in the police over this — at least they didn’t make it a public thing). Rather, any publicity about this has been generated by the environmental movement’s media machine. I’m told that at least one D.C. reporter was on the scene outside the room where Maria was questioned. So it seemed unlikely that the incident was going to be kept out of the press, even if that’s the way Maria would have preferred it. And coverage in fact followed, starting with a blog post by the son of the founder of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, followed by pieces from Grist and by Jeff Biggers, who picked up on the notion that the Republicans had “smeared” Maria Gunno and called for congressional censure of the members involved in this sorry episode. On OVEC’s in-house “Hoots and Hollers”  blog, I counted four separate posts about the incident as of this morning, and environmentalists are certainly seizing on it to try to encourage more participation in their national call-in day to push for a ban on mountaintop removal.

Maria Gunnoe, having taken about all the insults she could stand, seems like the only one who doesn’t want to dwell on it. She wrote on her Facebook page yesterday:

You know I have had it with this.. I am going to go for a hike with my grandson and nephew and hope that I can get this insaity off my mind. I need to remind me of why I put me through this.. This is not about me. This is about this little girl and MANY other children having healthy water to bath in and drink!

Paul Johnson protests the Environmental Protection Agency during the pro-coal rally outside the Frankfort Convention Center before the EPA’s public hearing in Frankfort, Ky. Tuesday, June 5, 2012. (AP Photo/The State-Journal, Hannah Reel)

Over in Kentucky last night, the mining industry’s “war on coal” rhetoric was on mighty display, with big crowds at a hearing on EPA’s crackdown on inadequate state regulation of water pollution from strip mining (see overage from WFPL, the Herald-Leader and the Courier-Journal). You would have been hard-pressed to find any Kentucky elected officials  there who seemed too concerned about whether kids like Makayla Urias have clean water to take a bath in — let alone drink.

Now, Rep. Lamborn’s refusal to look at the bath-time photo may or may not have something to do with some incredibly warped view of what the photo represents. Or maybe it’s just part of his continued effort to define the Obama administration’s fairly modest efforts at cracking down on mountaintop removal as some sort of “war on coal.” As he said in an opening statement at Friday’s hearing:

Today we will hear from folks who are interested in talking about other topics than the reckless disregard for the law as demonstrated by the EPA in this case. There will be distractions about selenium, water quality, and the general process of mining. None of that is the topic of to day’s hearing. Today is about a reckless Administration and an agency that believes they are above the law as they crusade against domestic jobs and domestic energy.

A statement like that raises the question of just when Rep. Lamborn’s committee will have a hearing to talk about selenium, water quality and how “the general process of mining” has been connected to troubling increases in illnesses, including cancer and birth defects, among residents of the Appalachian coalfields.

Maybe Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., will demand such a hearing — both to explore important public health issues surrounding mountaintop removal and to get to the bottom of why one of his constituents was treated with such disrespect by the House Committee on Natural Resources. But wait … Rep. Rahall isn’t on the Natural Resources Committee anymore. He gave up that spot to become the ranking Democrat over at the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

In that role, surely Rep. Rahall is working to ensure that needed infrastructure is in place to provide the children of the Appalachian coalfields with clean water, right? Well, not so much. In fact, tomorrow, the committee is scheduled to take up a bill that Rep. Rahall co-sponsored in his continuing war on clean water protections. Commenting on that legislation, the National Wildlife Federation said:

The Clean Water Act is under attack yet again with the introduction of another dirty water bill introduced by Representative John Mica (R-FL) and Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV). The bill (HR 4965) is scheduled for markup by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Thursday, June 7th. If enacted, the Mica-Rahall bill would prohibit the Army Corp of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency from finalizing and implementing the much needed Clean Water Act guidance that would protect the nation’s prized water resources.

HR 4965 undermines the future of clean water, leaving streams, rivers and wetlands vulnerable by blocking Clean Water Act guidance and anticipated rulemaking—now and indefinitely.  Derailing the guidance now would lock in the current confusing regulatory process. Furthermore, the bill could nullify the previous guidance issued in 2008 under the Bush administration, leaving the public and federal agencies with no roadmap for implementing the Clean Water Act.  This bill is another effort on the part of opponents of clean water to roll back longstanding and successful Clean Water Act protections.