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House Republicans Censor Photo Showing Impacts Of Mountain Top Removal, Calling It Child Porn

by Matt Kasper

At a House hearing last week, witnesses were intending to focus on coal mining. Instead, a photo of a five year old child is getting all the attention.

Testifying in front of the House Natural Resources Commitee on the impact of coal mining, activist Maria Gunnoe intended to show a picture of a five year old child bathing in polluted water from mountaintop mining. But House Republicans censored the image, calling it child pornography.

The photo was taken by photojournalist Katie Falkenberg, who wrote this caption about the image:

Erica and Rully must bathe their daughter, age 5, in contaminated water that is the color of tea. Their water has been tested and contains high levels of arsenic…. The coal company that mines the land around their home has never admitted to causing this problem, but they do supply the family with bottled water for drinking and cooking. Contaminated and colored water has occurred in other coalfield communities as well where mountaintop mining is practiced.

Members of the committee were not able to see the informative image, because Republican committee staff barred Gunnoe from displaying the picture during her testimony.

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Gunnoe complied with the request, but after the hearing was escorted into an empty room by Capitol Police and was questioned for 45 minutes about the photo at the request of an unnamed GOP senior committee staffer to Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO). Gunnoe is a renowned activist against mountaintop coal mining, who has testified before the committee three other times.

Intimidation tactics against coal activists are nothing new, especially against Gunnoe. She has faced threats and intimidation directed at her and her family for her environmental justice work:

In return for her passionate activism, mine managers have singled out Gunnoe as an enemy of mine workers and their jobs. She has received threats on her life and her children are frequently harassed at school. Her daughter’s dog was shot dead, wanted posters featuring her photo have appeared in local stores, and she has had to take serious measures to protect her family and property.

It is not difficult to see why the Goldman Environmental Prize winner is seen as a threat. As Gunnoe pointed out in her testimony about the Spruce coal mines in West Virginia, mountaintop removal is an extraordinarily destructive process that the coal companies don’t want the public to know about:

  • Selenium discharges downstream from Spruce No 1 are already much higher than EPA standards according to recent water testing. The Spruce 1 permit will allow more selenium to be released into this stream. This is the making for life threatening levels of selenium.
  • The community of Blair has NO municipal drinking water available to them. The only water in these communities is the well water which in some cases has already been polluted. The community of Blair needs water infrastructure to supply their homes with healthy water before any area permits are even discussed.
  • From what we see on the ground the coal companies have already moved forward in preparing the permit area as if they had an approved permit.
  • The Spruce permit is in the Coal River watershed. Mountaintop removal is why American Rivers placed the Coal River on our America’s Most Endangered Rivers list this year — because the river is at a decision point — not because it’s the most polluted. We can save these precious headwater streams that also serve as drinking water to our communities but we must act now before it is too late.

A 21-peer reviewed study confirmed that people living near the mountaintop removal cites are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer and 42 percent more likely to be born with birth defects compared with other communities in the Appalachia region. Local communities near such projects have a 70 percent increased risk for developing kidney disease, and there are 313 excess deaths every year from coal-mining pollution.

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Sadly, these are not the issues being discussed after the hearing. Instead, we’re talking about why a powerful photograph was censored by a House Committee.

Capitol Police have not found Gunnoe guilty of any wrongdoing.

Matt Kasper is a Special Assistant for Energy and Environmental Policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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