Last August, 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 U.S. representative also railed against a “war on coal” waged by “naysayers” and “dreamers” ignorant of the hard truths of the modern energy game, who were using “burdensome and onerous regulations” to try to reduce our access to coal’s bounty. He urged America’s coal industry to fight back with the facts. “Your industry has a great story to tell,” Lambert explained, “and I encourage you to tell it.”
Last week, Lamborn created a coal story of his own. It began with a West Virginia woman 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 chairman of a subcommittee — ordered Gunnoe to remove one of Falkenberg’s pictures from her presentation — a photo of a 5-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 notes.)
In fact, this story so troubled the House Natural Resources Committee staff that they notified the Capitol Police, who spent an hour interrogating Gunnoe 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-colored 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. You’ve heard Katie Falkenberg’s story clearly. If you see an image that could be construed as titillating, an image that is in any way sexual — or that could be interpreted as such in order to erase this girl’s plight — you’ve taken several very twisted turns, veering sharply away from basic human decency.
There’s a face now on the girl’s quiet tragedy. Her tormenter has a name, a title: Congressman Doug Lamborn of Colorado, the coal industry’s most shameless shill.
By coincidence, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney happened to be in Lamborn’s home state last week, telling his own story about coal. By way of celebrating the bustling local coal mining business, Romney attacked President Obama’s record on job creation in the renewable energy sector. “You see he said he was going to create some 5 million green energy jobs,” Romney said. “Have you seen those around here anywhere?”
As a reporter for the Colorado Independent noted, those jobs weren’t actually scarce in Colorado. In fact, as of 2010 more than 70,000 of the state’s residents were working in the green energy sector. And as the New York Times and many others have reported, the coal industry is in steep decline, unable to compete with cut-rate natural gas and increasingly targeted by the EPA and activists for the toll it has taken on human and environmental health.
It’s one of those funny things about telling coal’s tales: If you want to tell a good-news story, you won’t be able to tell too much of the truth. It’s also why there’s a particularly rich irony to one of the things Congressman Lamborn told his coal-biz cronies:
As to the future, despite the naysayers who oppose the use of coal, even to the detriment of our nation, and the dreamers, who do not understand that energy does not come from simply wishing it to be, coal has a vital role to play in our nation’s future.
Because the thing is, while energy might not come from wishing, it does come from willing it to be — just as the renewable energy industry has done in Colorado and far beyond. And no matter how big it gets, its story never ends with little girls in baths laced with arsenic, and congressmen accusing activists of outrageous crimes to try and hide their own.
To trade good-news stories of green energy 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.