Let me share an remarkable story with you. It’s about coal: the people it harms, the arrogance the industry has developed over years of being coddled, and the way it’s all starting to fall apart.

Up to the northeast of Las Vegas, off of I-15, is the 48-year-old Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant, owned by NV Energy.

The Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant

It spews lead, smog, mercury, and carbon dioxide, but for our present purposes, let’s focus on its gigantic ponds and piles of coal ash. Not only are they leaking chromium into the groundwater (see this report [PDF] for more on that), they blow great white clouds of coal ash across the community of Paiute Native Americans in the adjoining town of Moapa. Lots and lots of Moapa Paiutes are getting sick and dying. EPA is in the midst of considering whether to require expensive upgrades to the plant; the anti-coal movement is agitating to shut it down.

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Anyway, that’s the background. So last week, a local Las Vegas NBC affiliate decided to do a news report on it. Here reporter Reed Cowan presents the Paiutes’ perspective, along with NV Energy’s contention that the coal ash does contain arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals, but that it is “technically not toxic.”

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As you see at the end there, the intent was for this to be a two-part story, and for the second part to convey NV Energy’s perspective. Watch what happened:

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So first off, NV Energy’s attempts to shape the story were so ham-handed, pissed the reporter off so much, that he led by revealing their behind-the-scenes attempts at manipulation.

Then NV Energy sent out, for an interview, the employee whose job it is to monitor coal-ash ponds and dust. When asked what’s in all that coal ash, he replies: “I don’t know.” Again, NV Energy chose this guy.

Then NV Energy drags the reporter inside to witness a pregnant employee, the logic, I suppose, being, “She breathes the dust and she’s pregnant. So what’s the problem?” She shows off the monitoring equipment, except, um, there’s no monitoring of the coal ash. But she’s pregnant! So.

Then! The NV Energy PR guy steps in and starts trying to guide Cowan’s questions. He suggests that the Moapa Paiutes are just being emotional. This from the guy showing off the pregnant employee.

The crude manipulation clearly infuriated Cowan, because the two-part series then became a three-part series. He decided to ask some actual scientists what’s in the air:

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NV Energy insists that the air and dust are perfectly healthy. They tested it in their labs and everything cleared. So.

Cowan and crew take the sample to an independent scientific lab for testing, and oops! The concentrations of chemicals — chromium, arsenic, etc. — are high enough to be toxic. The chemist says, “If I had this kind of exposure in my laboratory, I would evacuate the laboratory until it got cleaned out.” Ouch.

The story finishes with a Moapa Paiute saying, “It’s as simple as death. Slowly but surely, we’re all dying off.”

In the wake of all this, EPA has delayed its decision on air-pollution controls at Reid Gardner to allow for more public comment. Nevada Sen. Harry Reid (D) said in a statement, “Significant comments on the proposed permit, as well as new modeling analyses, indicate the strong need to protect public health and visibility on our public lands with the best possible technology.” Yeah.

To me, this story is highly illustrative. Coal companies and utilities have been operating outside scrutiny for so long, they seem completely unprepared to account for themselves. Whatever you can say about oil companies, they’ve been under attack long enough to have developed slick PR. Coal companies are killing people, they don’t seem aware or concerned, and they can barely even competently pretend to give a sh*t.