MAC: Mines and Communities

US coal lobby goes naked into the conference chamber

Published by MAC on 2012-06-19
Source: The Hill, Mother Jones (2012-06-08)

Are there no depths to which the US coal lobby will sink, in order to overturn the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s new rules aimed at cutting toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants?

A group called "American Commitment" last week threw a million dollars behind an advertising campaign, claiming president Obama is "waging war on coal" and that his administration will  kill jobs and raise electricity prices.

In fact, last October, the EPA revealed that new clean air rules would save thousands of people from premature death, and forestall ill-health among millions of other citizens. 

The economic benefits of the revised Clean Air Act would "equal about $2 trillion per year by the year 2020". See: US citizens face biggest health threat for years, after Republican backlash

In an even more under-handed move, an award-winning West Virginia anti-coal activist and photographer has been smeared with accusations of peddling "child pornography" by staff of the Republican-led House Committee on Natural Resources.

Conservative group's $1M ad buy seeks votes to kill coal rule

By Ben Geman

The Hill

8 June 2012

A conservative advocacy group says it's spending almost $1 million on ads to corral support for an upcoming Senate effort to overturn Environmental Protection Agency rules that require cuts in toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants.

American Commitment is running ads starting Friday in four states taking aim at "Obama's war on coal" - the phrase critics use to allege the EPA rule and other White House policies create costly burdens that will kill jobs and raise power costs.

The ads running in Tennessee, West Virginia, New Hampshire and Maine urge senators to support Sen. James Inhofe's (R-Okla.) resolution to overturn the rules that EPA finalized late last year. A vote on Inhofe's plan is expected as soon as soon as next week.

One of the ads urges Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who opposes outright killing the EPA emissions rules, to change course and support Inhofe's plan. "Is Senator Lamar Alexander joining Obama's war on coal? It looks like it," the ad states, alleging that a vote against Inhofe's plan is "a vote against Tennessee."

The West Virginia ad urges Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has frequently broken ranks with the White House on coal policy, to rally colleagues in favor of Inhofe's plan, stating: "Senator Joe Manchin may vote right, but will he lead others to stand up to Obama?"

The other ads are focused on Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), according to American Commitment.

Inhofe is trying to overturn the EPA rules - which require cuts in mercury and other emissions - using the Congressional Review Act.

The mid-1990s law allows lawmakers to nullify federal rules, and CRA resolutions are immune from filibuster, meaning just 51 votes are needed for passage.

"I think right now the hard count is still in the low-to-mid 40s, but there are a lot of undecided votes that are still out there," said American Commitment President Phil Kerpen in a short interview, arguing that Manchin could help bring over enough coal-state lawmakers to put Inhofe's plan over the top.

However, the CRA has been used successfully just once, and would force lawmakers to kill the emissions regulations, as opposed to modifying or delaying them. Inhofe faces a tough climb to reach 51 votes.

American Commitment is a recently formed group; Kerpen spent more than five years as a top policy and legislative strategist with the conservative group Americans for Prosperity.

Kerpen, in the interview, declined to say whether American Commitment receives funding from the coal industry. "We protect the privacy of all of our contributors," he said.

The ad campaign is a mix of TV, radio and online spots, the group said. Kerpen said they will initially run through next Wednesday but that some of the funding for the buy will be held back, given the uncertainty of the timing of the vote.

Industry groups including the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Mining Association are working in support of Inhofe's plan, Environment & Energy Daily reported Friday.

Critics of EPA say the air toxics standards and other regulations will together force closure of significant numbers of coal plants, harm the economy and jeopardize power reliability.

But backers of the standards call them vital public health protections and say allegations of economic harm are inaccurate.

EPA officials say the power plant rules have enough flexibility to address reliability concerns, and advocates of the emissions regulations point to reports from the Congressional Research Service and the Energy Department to back them up.

EPA estimates that the air toxics standards will prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 cases of childhood asthma per year.

The agency has also pushed back on claims that the rules will scuttle jobs, instead arguing that requiring plants to install pollution controls will help create employment. EPA estimates that rules will create tens of thousands of temporary construction jobs and 8,000 permanent utility jobs.


GOP Ally of Big Coal Smears Environmental Activist With Kiddie Porn Accusation

By Tim McDonnell

Mother Jones

5 June 2012

When award-winning West Virginia anti-coal activist Maria Gunnoe went to Washington, DC, last week, she was prepared for obstructionist tactics. She was prepared to face icy stares and hard questions from Republican lawmakers. She was not prepared to be branded a pedophile.

On Friday, Gunnoe testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources in a hearing on the Obama administration's contentious relationship with the coal mining industry. She had prepared a slideshow presentation that included a photograph by the photojournalist Katie Falkenberg depicting a nude young girl sitting in a bathtub filled with murky brown water.

The photo was meant as a salient statement to legislators on the impact of coal mining on society's most vulnerable. "We are forced to bathe our children in polluted water," she said. "Or not bathe them."

Such water is common in taps near mountaintop-removal sites, Gunnoe told me yesterday by phone, and often contains high levels of arsenic, which can seep into groundwater via underground cracks caused by mining explosions.

It was a point she never got to make: Shortly before she testified, Gunnoe was approached by committee staffers at the direction of Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) and told she had to remove the photo from her presentation.* She complied, but after testifying was escorted into an empty side room by Capitol Police Special Agent Randall Hayden and questioned for nearly an hour about the photo, which she had gotten the approval of the photographer, the child's parents, and Democratic committee members to use.

Gunnoe said Hayden, whom she described as kind and professional, told her the committee believed the photo to be suggestive of child pornography, and that he would be following up on the possibility of her being involved in such illegal activity.

"I had to pull my chin off the table," Gunnoe, a mother of two, said. "It gives you a very sick feeling when you're actually a protector of children." In 2009, she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work defending rural West Virginia communities against the health and ecological impacts of mountaintop-removal coal mining.

The smear tactic against Gunnoe has nothing to do with coal mining issues, of course-but while the tactic may seem shocking, it's not difficult to see why Lamborn and his allies would react with such hostility. Lamborn, the Chairman on the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, has long kept close ties to coal-a billion-dollar industry in his home state-last year blasting what he called Obama's "war on coal" in a keynote address to the American Coal Council.

Falkenberg, who captured the original image, said it was taken in the presence of the girl's parents, and with their express consent, for a series she was working on about the human effects of mountaintop-removal mining.

Late Monday, a Capitol Police spokesperson said the investigation had so far "discovered no criminal activity"; in a separate phone interview with Mother Jones, Hayden said the case was still open and declined to detail any specifics. "We look at everything, and then the US Attorney makes a decision about whether or not to prosecute," he said.

Committee spokesman Spencer Pederson said that after Lamborn decided the photo was "inappropriate for committee use," committee staffers, with the blessing of committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), contacted police to "apprise them of the situation." Lamborn's office, and the child's parents, did not return calls from Mother Jones for comment.

Joan Mulhern, an Earthjustice staff attorney and friend of Gunnoe who was present at the hearing, said the committee's tactic wasn't fooling anybody. "Committee Republicans are in denial and want to stay that way about the human health effects of mountaintop removal," she said, adding that the suggestion of Gunnoe being involved with child porn was "despicable."

*Clarification: Gunnoe was not approached by Rep. Lamborn's staff, as the story originally stated, according to his spokesperson Catherine Mortensen. After unsuccessful attempts to get comment from Lamborn's office on Monday, Mother Jones was contacted by Mortensen on Tuesday afternoon; she confirmed Lamborn decided that the photo should be barred from the presentation-but did so without looking at it himself, instead relying on the recommendation of Natural Resources Committee staff, who also contacted the police.

Editorial note: Katie Falkenberg's sensitive photographic slideshow on Mountain top mining in Appalachia can be viewed at: http://www.katiefalkenberg.com/#/the-human-toll--mountaintop-removal-mining/001

However, the "offending" portrait of a young girl sitting in a bathtub has been removed at the request of the girl's family.

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