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By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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Obscenity: I Know It When I See It

Maria Gunnoe is a West Virginia coalfield activist, and this video is one version of her story. It always makes me tear up; I’ve seen it a half dozen times, and I just watched it again, and have the sniffles as a result. Watch it if you have a few minutes. My mother is the founder of the organization that Maria works with — she makes an appearance in the video at about minute 3:20 —  and this is the part of the country I grew up in, so I can never tell how much the way it makes me feel comes from my emotional connection to her story. But I think there’s plenty of rage-sadness to go around.

Anyway, I want to tell a slightly different story. Yesterday, Maria went to Washington to testify in front of the House Committee on Natural Resources (the subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources). She delivered these remarks (.pdf), describing the kind of devastation that has accompanied the expansion of mountain-top removal surface mining in southern West Virginia. She accompanied her remarks with this slideshow, including this picture of a creek near her home polluted by surface mining:

One way to understand what those photos mean is to think about how much heavy metal poison is safely buried under mountains, so far below the water table that it never has the chance to get into our bodies. There’s a lot of arsenic in the earth’s crust, but until human beings start digging into on a massive scale, your chance of, say, bathing in it, or drinking it, are pretty slim. In the coalfields, on the other hand, this is often what comes out of the faucet:

Another way to understand what that kind of water pollution means is to remember that well water is the only source of water most coalfield residents have, people who live far from any municipal water supply. In most of these communities, city water just isn’t an option, and buying containers of drinking water is expensive. As a result, for so many people, this is the water they drink, the water they bathe in, the water they use to live. Human beings require a lot of water, and while you can distill and filter it, this is still the water you’re stuck with, the water that comes out of the ground. When that water gets poisoned, that’s the water you put in your body.

But that’s not the story I wanted to tell either. This is it: Maria was going to show another picture to the House subcommittee yesterday, this photo, which is a photo of a five year old child bathing in that kind of brown, poisonous water. The child is naked, as you normally are when you bathe. I’d invite you to click that link, and think about what, if anything, distresses you about it.

The photo was taken by photojournalist Katie Falkenberg, who gave it this caption:

Erica and Rully Urias must bathe their daughter, Makayla, age 5, in contaminated water that is the color of tea. Their water has been tested and contains high levels of arsenic. The family attributes this water problem primarily to the blasting which they believe has disrupted the water table and cracked the casing in their well, allowing seepage of heavy metals into their water, and also to the runoff from the mountaintop removal sites surrounding their home. 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 in has occurred in other coalfield communities as well where mountaintop mining is practiced.

Now, that photo of Makayla Urias is a photograph of a naked child, a child exactly as naked as nine-year-old Kim Phuc was when, forty years ago, an Associated Press photographer snapped a picture of her, while she was running and crying from American napalm. You’ve probably seen that photo. It’s iconic. The photographer got a Pulitzer prize for taking it.

Yesterday, on the other hand, Maria was told that she would not be allowed to show that photo. It was not appropriate. She had the blessing of the child’s parents, but Republicans on the subcommittee alerted the capitol police (according to Spencer Pederson, a spokesman for GOP panel members), and after the hearing, the capitol police took Maria aside for questioning about “child pornography.”

Now, this is just what it was, and no more. Coalfield activists like Maria face threats, intimidation, and vandalism regularly; she’s received verbal threats to her life, her children have been harassed at school, “wanted” posters of Gunnoe have appeared in local convenience stores, and so forth. This is a strong lady, and I suspect I’m not wrong to say that it’s far from the worst of the shit she’s faced for daring to be strong in a part of the country where Coal is King. It was just the kind of insulting humiliation that it was meant to be. Coal-friendly congresspeople were using the resources at their disposal to harass someone who had the nerve to speak out against the industry they shill for, to try to intimidate someone like Maria who speaks for (and is) one of the people that industry poisons.

But it’s pretty clarifying, don’t you think? The real obscenity is that people drink that water, that they have no choice but to bathe in it, and to bathe their children in it. You know that, and I know that. But if a massive surface mining operation in the vicinity of your house poisons your water table, and if your well water runs brown with coal sludge and heavy metal particulate, well, that’s just the cost of doing business in America, a cost that will be paid by the Appalachians who only live there. It’s regrettable, at best. You can’t call the police and the state doesn’t want to know. And if you dare to take a picture of child’s exposure to that poison, if you have the nerve to walk into the halls of Congress and show them the obscenity that is a child that must wash herself with poison every day, they will call you a child pornographer. They will call the police.

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31 Responses to “Obscenity: I Know It When I See It”

  1. Ericaut42 says:

    Thank you Aaron…”…They will call the police.” It was a pretty disgusting behavior from federal legislators.

    Whatever low approval rating i might have given these animals- they certainly do not deserve to be called men-that rating is now in the negative range.

  2. Ericaut42 says:

    Thank you Aaron…”…They will call the police.” It was a pretty disgusting behavior from federal legislators.

    Whatever low approval rating i might have given these animals- they certainly do not deserve to be called men-that rating is now in the negative range.

  3. BobKincaid says:


    The first thing I thought of when I saw the photo of Makayla was this iconic photograph from Japan:

    Tomoko Uemura was a victim of Minimata Disease, a disease caused by mercury exposure, similar to the kinds of heavy metal exposures Appalachian people face from Mountaintop Removal. The photo in Maria’s presentation is hauntingly similar. The response of the right-wing coal thugs to the truth of what they are doing to Appalachian children is appallingly obvious: they will do ANYTHING, up to and including ginning up false charges to keep their nefarious deeds as secret as possible.

    In a way, I want to thank the Coal Industry for raising this ruckus. More people will now see this photo from the Appalachian Apocalypse than might otherwise have.

  4. Allen Johnson says:

    And just the other night we took a photograph of our young grandchildren in the bathtub…. (oh dear!)

    The upshot, as noted, is simply the thuggery of the coal industry that continues to intimidate and harass. Notwithstanding the product of pollution that they peddles, the coal industry is sleazy and corrosive of our democracy, and dishonorable, and, well, truly obscene.

    –Allen Johnson

  5. Jmulhern says:

    Thank you Aaron for your extremely well written piece.

    I have been a federal lobbyist for over a dozen years now, and that was by far the meanest, lowest, scummiest thing I have ever witnessed. To accuse someone like Maria — or any citizen asked by the committee to testify — because she wanted to show what was really happening to the people they represent . . . and the Republicans did not want to have to confront that reality. Wow. They are beneath contempt.

  6. Anonymous says:

    That photograph is terribly upsetting–and not because the child is naked. I’m the mother of a girl about the same age, and I want to grab Makayla out of that tub as fast as possible, my hands are itching to get that poison off her. And she was accused of child pornography? I’d say “for shame!” at the GOP legislators, but they have no shame, whatever normal human feelings they might have had were bought and sold by special interests. Anything for a buck in the USA, capitalism is religion. Even if it means poisoning children. As someone also said, at least now more people are seeing that photo.

  7. drifting cloud says:

    More proof that people will fixate on anything – anything at all – except for the real issues.

    The “real issue”, here, of course, is that the goal of industrial production in itself and the abstract figures of the economy are given a higher value than the lives of real human beings living in Appalachia.

    The other “real issue” is why the police would waste time harassing somebody like Maria, instead of harassing the Congress for obstructionism and endangering the public welfare.

    Truly, we live in “interesting times”. What an inverted world.

  8. leoba says:

    Do you have a list of the people on that committee – all of them, not just the Republicans? I would like to send them a letter.

  9. nolongeranonymous says:

    All I can say is those low down m*f*rs.

  10. Eric Meiers says:

    Can you name the Thug congressmen

  11. Anonymous says:

    This story and situation makes me think of the Bhopal disaster — the pesticide plant poisoning the surrounding population and the horrific gas leak that killed and injured thousands. I’m reading a play about it right now. Same thing — drinking and bathing in the toxic water, leading to illness and birth deformities. It’s unbelievable that this is going on right here right now. A child bathing in brown arsenic water is absolute obscenity. It’s so obvious. There’s no hiding the fact of it — that it’s poisoning the people. How can it be allowed to go on?!

  12. Anonymous says:

    Republicans have crossed a line, from opposition to evil. They need to look into their hearts and ask themselves if there is another way.

  13. Hcutting says:

    Big money owns the US. Here’s your proof. Again.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Am posting this uncovered story everywhere I can. Bet you, we’re going to see a LOT more stories like this never make the national media and last a few minutes on lefty aggregator sites… for whole minutes at a time?

  15. Bill says:

    Gunnoe should have shown the picture to the committee and, as you said, the capitol police would recognize the true obscenity of the situation when they saw it. Disgusting how GOP policymakers can’t bear to look at the consequences of their pro-coal policies.

  16. Canadian greatgrammy says:

    Are people so at a loss for veritable information to oppose that they grasp at idiocy?

    Just a Canadian greatgrandmother who cannot believe what she is reading about some of the US lately.

    Wish you all well

  17. Rds5153 says:

    More people should stand up for this and be less afraid. I marched in a parade with my young twin boys against abortion…the picture I carried showed them laying naked on their stomachs…only the curve of their backsides exposed. I chose this baby picture to express to others that my twin sons are perfect, loved and had I listened to these stupid, ignorant idiots, mostly young females that don’t have a clue, then I would be no better. We were photograhed and the picture made the paper. We stood up for our beliefs as Maria has…as many others should…and then just maybe, these pompous. Blowhards will realize the damage they have inflicted on the American people. Quote the article, “There is no place for intimidation in Democracy”…not now, not ever.

  18. Halli620 says:

    I’m not sure what your point is or why you would be posting this on here? Abortion – an issue totally and entirely unrelated to this article – should be a private decision, between a woman and her doctors, and just as you had the opportunity to choose what was right for you, so should everyone else. All of our citizens should also have the right to bathe in clean water. Do not muddy issues, and keep your rights and let the rest of us have ours too.

  19. This is both sad and tragic, especially when viewed from the coast of California. Is there any question about who owns this country?

  20. Jonasher says:

    I went to college in West Virginia 50 years ago, and even then the runoff and pollution from at-that-time mostly underground mining was astonishing and nothing short of frightening. Even though we were pretty naive about environmental matters, all of my fellow students knew that what they were seeing was simply evidence of the reprehensible power of the coal mining industry, who regularly and consistently fought back against anything that would have slowed their operations or thinned their profit margins.

    I now live in New Mexico, where evidence of uncontrolled mining operations is all around us. From polluted ground water to above ground wreckage from abandoned operations, it’s all right in plain view.

    We the taxpayers recently spent millions of our money cleaning up the remains from a private mining operation, and that’s just plain wrong.

    As this situation has so graphically proven, the Republican party is under the control of the corporate world. We saw that in the election results from Wisconsin last night.

    Unless and until we the people find some way of stopping the flow of money from corporations to politicians, we can kiss our individual rights goodbye, just as we can kiss our environmental future goodbye.

    It does no good at all the carefully pick up that discarded aluminum can or cigarette pack when three millions times as much damage is being done every second by uncontrolled corporate polluters.

    I guess I’ll just have to tell my grandchildren that some of us tried….

    Jon Asher
    Glorieta, New Mexico

  21. Anon says:

    Rds5153 was trying to make a point that others should show solidarity. However, I do agree that this was a poor example to use. Many pro-life activists bully woman into accepting their views and not expressing their rights, which mirrors what the coal industry is doing. So again, it was well intended but very poorly thought out.

  22. And the photo has now been removed – ‘at the parents request’ – completing the obscenity.

  23. King Neece says:

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    Our University of Alabama patented solar desalination product uses no electricity, has no filters to replace, can be taken anywhere and extracts pure water from any contaminated water source. It removes radiation, fluoride, salt, pesticides, bacteria, dirt and other contaminants from any water. It aids people to be prepared for disasters. Made tough in the U.S.A.

    Please visit us:

    These units can also be placed together in arrays of literally any number of panels, as needed, to accommodate a desert farm or any remote area that needs water.

  24. Comet2cv says:

    Representative Doug Lamborn, one of the congresspeople responsible for sic’ing the Capitol Police on Maria Gunnoe can be reached via his Capitol Hill office, 202-225-4422. I’ve already called his office, and I urge others to do so as well. His aide, a woman, listened to me quietly, and she was clearly upset by what Lamborn had done, and said she woudl pass my message along to him. There are probably other republicans on that committee who should be called about this.

  25. David says:

    Here are the rest of the republican members of the subcommittee. You can google their office numbers by googling their name with the area code, 202. Let them know just how egregioius their behavior is:

    # Louie Gohmert, Texas
    # Paul Broun, Georgia
    # John Fleming, Louisiana
    # Mike Coffman, Colorado
    # Glenn Thompson, Pennsylvania
    # Dan Benishek, Michigan
    # David Rivera, Florida
    # Jeff Duncan, South Carolina
    # Paul Gosar, Arizona
    # Bill Flores, Texas
    # Jeff Landry, Louisiana
    # Chuck Fleischmann, Tennessee
    # Bill Johnson, Ohio

  26. David says:

    Doug Lamborn is chairman of the subcommittee
    phone # is 202-225-4422. Let him know how egregious his behavior is.

  27. David says:

    Doug Lamborn is chairman of the subcommittee
    phone # is 202-225-4422. Let him know how egregious his behavior is.

  28. David says:

    Doug Lamborn is chairman of the subcommittee
    phone # is 202-225-4422. Let him know how egregious his behavior is.

  29. ruth griffith says:

    just like them to try to change the subject and turn their ugly heads once again

  30. David Barnes says:

    so if the definition of pornography is ‘writings, pictures, films, etc, designed to stimulate sexual excitement’ and the GOP is calling this photo of a child bathing in filth pornographic then what does that say about THEM?

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