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Maria Gunnoe Deserves a Public Apology from Rep. Doug Lamborn

Child Porn Charge Against Activist an Attempt to Sidestep Discussion on Environmental Impact of the Proposed Spruce Coal Mine

In case you missed this outrageous bit of absurdity, noted anti-mountaintop removal mining activist Maria Gunnoe was investigated for child porn recently because she tried to show Congressmen a photo of a little girl sitting in a bathtub of polluted water.

photo of a woman smiling Photo courtesy Goldman Environmental PrizeGunnoe wanted to show politicians a picture of a five year old child bathing in
polluted water to highlight the impact of mountaintop removal mining.

Gunnoe, who was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2009 for her efforts to fight mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia, was scheduled to testify to the House Committee on Natural Resources on the adverse impacts of the Spruce No. 1 coal mine, the largest proposed strip-mining operation in central Appalachia.

This was to be her fourth testimony before the committee. This time, in order to underscore her point, she decided to display a photograph of a five-year-old child sitting in a tub of brown, arsenic-laden water as an example of how runoff from mountaintop removal sites contaminates the local water supply.

The image, shot by award-winning photographer Katie Falkenberg, was part of a photo essay about the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining and had been taken with consent from the child’s parents. In the caption accompanying the photo Falkenberg wrote: "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." (Falkenberg has since removed the image from her website claiming that the child’s family "has declined media request to use" the photo. However copies are still a simple Google search away.)

Gunnoe, who says the committee member have avoided looking at her during past hearings, hoped the photograph would get committee members look her in the eye for a change. (Read the text of her testimony here.)

But on the day of the hearing, June 1, Representative Doug Lamborn – a Colorado Springs Republican and the subcommittee’s chairman – not only barred Gunnoe from showing the image, but he went as far as accusing her of being a child pornographer and had his staff call the cops on her. Coal, incidentally, is a billion-dollar industry in Lamborn’s home state.

After the censored hearing, Gunnoe was taken aside by Capitol Police and questioned for 45 minutes. The cops later said they had "discovered no criminal activity," related to the photo, but that the case is still open to prosecution.

photo of children in a tubPhoto by Ian UmedaMy nieces playing with rubber duckies in a bathtub filled with
clean water. Fortunately for them, they don’t live
downstream from mountaintop removal.

This is not the first time Gunnoe has faced harassment for her activism. She has received several death threats in the past, her daughter’s dog was shot dead, and pro-mining goons have plaster wanted posters with her photo in local stores.

But that doesn’t meant we should let pass this unscrupulous effort to intimidate Gunnoe, and to obfuscate the real issue – the environmental and health impact of a 2,278 acre mountaintop mining project that would bury 6.6 miles of streams. Studies have shown that people living by mountaintop removal cites are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer, have higher risk of kidney disease, and are more likely to have children with birth defects than other communities in the Appalachia region.

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the grassroots group Gunnoe works with, wants a public apology from Lamborn and his staff. It’s asking those outraged by what happened Gunnoe to turn on the pressure on Lamborn by submitting letters, documents, and information to the Congressional record of the June 1 hearing. This is a public record, and according to House rules, the public is free to submit comments and information on this particular hearing. until 5 p.m. Eastern Time this Friday, June 15.

The coalition has some good ideas for messages we can send, including “sending a bathtub photo of your own kids.” I don’t have any children of my own, but when I told my sister about Gunnoe’s ordeal last evening, she immediately told me I could post a bathtub photo of my two nieces instead.

Borrowing the coalition’s idea, here’s my message to Mr Lamborn and the Congressional subcommittee:

“Dear Sirs, If you think this photo of my beloved little nieces is also pornography you can tell the Capitol Police how to find my sister and me.”

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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By Hawashim on Thu, July 19, 2012 at 4:44 pm

Thank you for this very well-written article.  Here’s the letter I sent:

To Mr. Lamborn, Mr. Hastings and House Natural Resources Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee staff:

I wish to submit the following letter for the public Congressional record of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Oversight Hearing on Friday, June 1, 2012, at 10:00 AM, entitled “The Obama Administration’s Actions Against the Spruce Coal Mine: Canceled Permits, Lawsuits and Lost Jobs.”

I am appalled and disgusted at your treatment of Maria Gunnoe after her testimony. Is this really your idea of democracy? Do you really feel like you were there to listen to one of the 300 million people you were elected to represent and protect? Somewhere along the line, you and so many other politicians have forgotten that the American government was supposed to be “of, for and by the people.” I know you have found someway to convince yourselves that corporations are people too, but that’s a delusion of the highest order and an insult to those of us who really are people with living breathing bodies and beating hearts.

By  continuing to create diversions from the truth of what is happening in Appalachia you are guilty for the suffering that continues here as a result. I would call your failures to protect American citizens  crimes against humanity. To put the interest of profit for a corporation before the well-being of real humans, particularly children, is a shame and a disgrace.

Would you bathe your children in this water? Would you condemn your family to drink it day after day?

I will close by saying that if you found the image of a child bathing in toxic water pornographic, perhaps you should have called your psychiatrist before you called the Capitol Police.


Paul Corbit 

By Paul Corbit Brown on Fri, June 15, 2012 at 3:46 am

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