11/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cooking up Lies with Dirty Coal

The old dirty energy industry, especially coal and oil, can count on an army of expert cooks who have concocted some of the dirtiest political campaigns in this country's history.

The black fingerprints of these chefs of political manipulation are all over Washington's white marble buildings. And their most recent creation has been served to us wrapped around tortillas of cynicism and shamelessness.

I am talking about a scandal that has astonished some of the capital's most battle-tested veterans, a campaign of lies and misinformation designed to derail the Energy Bill being debated in Congress.

The kitchen it came from is Bonner & Associates, a public relations firm that employed filthy tricks for its dirty clients, in this case the coal industry. Bonner & Associates sent at least 13 fake letters to members of Congress in which alleged civic organizations expressed their opposition to the Energy Bill.

One of the letters came from a community-based organization named Creciendo Juntos, in Charlottesville, Virginia, signed by a Marisse K. Acevedo. But the letter, the name and the title were all forged. A Bonner & Associates employee reportedly made up the whole tale to influence Rep. Tom Pirriello (D-VA).

The coal industry group that hired Bonner & Associates eventually disavowed the fake letters and claimed they had nothing to do with them. But the damage was already done.

At least two more representatives received forged letters from this employee before the House voted on, and wisely passed, the bill. The scandal triggered a Congressional investigation into the shenanigans. So far, staffers have identified 45 letters similar to the ones sent out by Bonner & Associates, a firm that reportedly instructs its employees to lie to achieve its purposes and provides incentives to churn out as many of these letters as possible.

But the scandal that hurts the most to Hispanics is not only the fraudulent use of a legitimate community-based organization dedicated to doing good. What hurts us most is the coal industry and its poisoning the air we breathe and the fish we eat.

Coal-fired plants produce 40 percent of the global warming gases emitted in the United States. Every year their toxic gases are responsible for 21,000 hospitalizations, 38,000 heart attacks and 24,000 unnecessary deaths.

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), 80 percent of us Latinos live in counties that have violated federal air pollution standards, as opposed to only 57 percent of non-Latino whites.

ALA says a Latino child is two and a half times more likely to develop asthma than a non-Latino white child. Asthma -- an illness aggravated by coal emissions -- is considered an epidemic in communities of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, almost two thirds of the total Hispanic population.

According to a League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) study, 39 percent of Latinos live within 30 miles of a coal plant, the radius within which soot and other pollutants cause their worst damage.

Coal plants also are the biggest sources of mercury, a toxin that causes brain damage and even mental retardation. Rain washes mercury down to waterways and lakes, where it turns into its most toxic version, methyl-mercury, which is absorbed by fish. Human beings get it into their systems by consuming that fish.

According to the LULAC survey, mercury emissions have a disproportionate impact on Latinos. There are 1.3 million Hispanic anglers in the US, and many more of them consume their catch than their non-Latino white counterparts do.

But coal is not the only cook in this dirty kitchen.

Big Oil knows the new climate and energy bill would be the beginning of the end of its virtual monopoly over the fuel our transportation system depends on. And it has already launched a national campaign against the energy bill comparable to that sponsored by health care opponents to derail reform in that sector.

Big Coal and Big Oil are determined to cover our ears so we can't hear about the overwhelming advantages of the climate and energy bill, especially for us Latinos. This clean energy initiative would improve the air we breathe, fight global warming, create millions of new jobs and strengthen our national security by breaking our dangerous addiction to foreign oil.

They know if we all listen, they will choke on their dirty tricks.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Visit