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December 20, 2014

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Was Reid’s slur on coal an impolitic truth?

Senator’s sound bite has right wing buzzing, others shrugging

Image

Sam Morris

Nevada Power’s Reid Gardner coal-fired plant is shown in April 2007.

Sen. Harry Reid has a knack for blurting out the one thing nagging in the back of some people’s minds — the thing few people of his stature dare to say, for fear of looking off kilter.

Last week the majority leader did it again when he told Fox Business News that “coal makes us sick.”

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The comment ricocheted across the political landscape, drawing mostly scoffs and ridicule. After the video was posted on the Drudge Report, it shot up to No. 1 on YouTube.

But it does make us wonder: Does coal make us sick?

The American Lung Association says coal-fired power plants are among the nation’s biggest industrial polluters. The plants are responsible for 24,000 deaths a year, plus 500,000 asthma attacks and nearly 40,000 heart attacks.

Coal companies say plants of the new era are much cleaner. One representative said blowing up a hotel in Las Vegas is probably responsible for more particle dust.

Dr. Christian Hyde, a radiation oncologist from St. George, Utah, who has spoken out against a coal-fired power plant proposed for nearby Mesquite, Nev., said the chemicals and fine dust particles coming from power plants are the ingredients that lead to health problems.

“Air pollution does make people sick, and you don’t have to look too far for evidence,” Hyde said.

Still, the comments by Reid, who has opposed new coal plants for Nevada, led to gasps, particularly across the Republican side of the political spectrum.

This is what he said:

“The one thing we fail to talk about is those costs that you don’t see on the bottom line. That is, coal makes us sick. Oil makes us sick. It’s global warming. It’s ruining our country. It’s ruining our world. We’ve got to stop using fossil fuel.”

Pundits and bloggers lighted up. Newt Gingrich said Reid would bankrupt Las Vegas.

Tim Pearson, a spokesman for Freedom’s Watch, which disseminated the video as a news release, didn’t know Wednesday whether Reid was factually correct, but said the senator’s stance “indicates the liberal mind-set about fossil fuels.”

Others said this country’s wealth and high living standard were made possible with the industrialization fueled by coal and oil. With rising energy demand, they say, we need coal to keep the lights on. Criticizing that seemed narrow.

As one senior Republican Senate aide put it, Reid “speaks the truth to the crazy few.”

But showing just how wide the political and cultural divide in this country has become, Democrats — when they were even aware of the comment, and some were not — didn’t understand the ruckus.

“Harry Reid is right,” wrote Susan Estrich, a University of Southern California law professor who has run Democratic political campaigns, on FoxNews.com last week.

“Coal does make us sick,” Estrich wrote. “It’s not even debatable. It’s just the truth.

“The fact that Republicans think they can use this fact against Democrats tells me just how out of touch they are with the new realities of American politics.”

Bill Wicker, the Democratic spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, deadpanned, “That coal has been known to cause health problems isn’t breaking news.”

Whether history decides Reid was prescient or short-sighted, we’ll have to wait a bit. In the meantime, coal-making-us-sick will go on the list of Reidisms from the plain-spoken senator from Searchlight — along with calling President Bush a “loser” and a “liar,” and suggesting last year, when troop deaths in Iraq were at high levels, that this “war is lost.”

Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes the Senate for the Cook Political Report, wonders whether Reid was trying to insert health concerns into the global warming debate or just talking off-script.

But she’s not surprised.

“Here’s the thing: He’s not wrong,” Duffy said. Where he tripped up — and often does — was in the delivery. “There were, oh, I don’t know, 20 to 30 different ways to say that.”

She doubts it will cause Reid much political trouble.

“Singularly I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” Duffy said, “but boy, you could do a montage.”

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