06/05/2012 01:37 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2012

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, 40 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.

UPDATE 6/5: Late Monday afternoon, the Capitol Police announced that their investigation was over, and that they had found "no criminal activity."

This piece was originally published on zunguzungu.