A Smear Campaign to Protect Coal: When Staffers for Republican Congressman Doug Lamborn's Natural Resources Committee Accused an Environmental Activist of Trafficking in Child Porn, It Revealed Just How Far This Pro-Coal Supporter Will Go to Make His Point

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IN AUGUST 2011, Republican Congressman Doug Lamborn of Colorado gave a speech at the American Coal Council's Coal Market Strategies Conference. He praised the resource for generating nearly half of America's power and supplying "hundreds of thousands" of jobs and playing a "vital role in our nation's future." "It is reliable and it is cheap and it is ours," Lamborn said.


The US representative also railed against a "war on coal" waged by "naysayers" and "dreamers" ignorant of the hard truths of the modern energy game. He said they were using "burdensome and onerous regulations" to try to reduce our access to coal's bounty, He urged America's coal industry to light back with the facts. "Your industry has a great story to tell," Lamborn explained, "and I encourage you to tell it."

In late May 2012, Lamborn created a coal story of his own. It began with a woman from West Virginia named Maria Gunnoe, an activist and mother of two who came to testify before the House Natural Resources Committee on the impact of coal mining in her home state. She had a presentation containing several photos by award-winning photojournalist Katie Falkenberg, from her series "The Human Toll: Mountaintop Removal Mining," which tells the story of coal's impact on the lives of West Virginians in vivid, heartbreaking detail.

This, it turns out, was not Congressman Lamborn's kind of story. The staff of the House Natural Resources Committee, working under the direction of Lamborn--who is chair of a subcommittee--ordered Gunnoe to remove one of Falkenberg's pictures from her presentation. [Falkenberg has also removed the photo from her website.] The image showed a five-year-old girl curled up in her bathtub, the water stained brown From arsenic and other chemicals that the girl's parents believe have seeped into their water supply from nearby coal mining operations. ("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: the caption at Falkenberg's website noted.)

In fact, this story so troubled the House Natural Resources Committee staff that they notified the Capitol Police, who spent an hour interrogating Gunnone about whether or not she was involved in child pornography. This, evidently, was Lamborn's read on the story told in Katie Falkenberg's photo. He and his staff saw a photo of a little girl sitting naked and innocent in a tea-coloured toxic bath, and they worried that it might be pornographic.

Art is a kind of storytelling. At its best, it speaks to humanity's deepest truths. Often, it can reveal things not even its maker and subject had intended.

If you see the ache of human tragedy, a little girl at grave risk of harm from the pollutants in her bathtub, a life denied the most basic human need of clean water--if that's what you see, then you are seeing the bigger picture. …