Environmentalist asked about photo of naked Pike County child in discolored water after testimony to Congress

bestep@herald-leader.comJune 6, 2012 

Goldman Environmental Prize Winners

The 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize recipients, seen from left: Wanze Eduards of Pikin Slee Village, Suriname; Olga Speranskaya, of Moscow, Russia; Hugo Jabini, of Paramaribo, Suriname; Yuyun Ismawati, of Despasar, Bali, Indonesia; Rizwana Hasan, of Dhaka, Bangladesh and Maria Gunnoe, of West Virginia, USA, are seen Friday, April 17, 2009, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)


A photo of a Pike County girl taking a bath in discolored water, which an anti-strip mining advocate wanted to use in congressional testimony, led to the activist being questioned about child pornography.

The photo is not being investigated as child porn, the U.S. Capitol Police confirmed this week, but the incident has angered some environmentalists.

Maria Gunnoe, the West Virginia activist at the center of the story, said she thought pro-mining Republicans told police about the photo in an attempt to discredit her.

"I personally take it as an attack on my character," she said.

She testified Friday to members of a House subcommittee about damage to the environment and human health from mountaintop mining.

Gunnoe, who has been honored nationally for her grass-roots organizing work against mountaintop mining, wanted to show photos as part of her testimony to a subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources. The panel was considering the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's decision to withdraw a permit for a large mountaintop mine in Logan County, W.Va.

One slide of Gunnoe's proposed presentation showed a naked Pike County girl in a bathtub of rust-colored water. The girl's father, Ruley Urias, said the water was from his family's well, contaminated as a result of mining.

His daughter, Makayla, now 8, was 4 or 5 years old at the time a professional photographer took the photo for a project, Urias said.

He said his wife, Erica, gave Gunnoe permission to use the photo.

The committee staff decided the photo was not appropriate for use at the hearing, however, according to a statement from Spencer Pederson, press secretary for the panel.

After her testimony, Gunnoe said a Capitol police officer took her to another room and questioned her about the photo for about 45 minutes.

The police had gotten a report about potential child pornography, Gunnoe said.

She and Urias said any suggestion the photo was pornographic was ridiculous.

"It made me sick" to have the photo linked to pornography, Urias said.

However, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, the subcommittee chairman, said Wednesday that staffers told Lamborn, R-Colo., about the photo and recommended it not be shown because of its inappropriate nature.

Lamborn, without seeing the photo, agreed, according to his spokeswoman, Catherine Mortensen.

Mortensen said a committee staffer took it on himself to notify police.

Lt. Kimberly Schneider of the U.S. Capitol Police confirmed that a detective did a preliminary inquiry about the photo, but said there was no ongoing investigation.

"It was determined there was no criminal intent," Schneider said.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1

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