Friends of coal: “Big Steamed Bun” and “Most Handsome Guy”

Here’s a cautionary tale about petitions–which are increasingly becoming a substitute for real political activity, thanks to social media.

Last fall, a group called Citizens for Recycling First submitted a petition to the White House website. These folks don’t focus on recycling bottles or newspapers; they support the recycling of coal ash, the waste left after coal is burned. Their petition asked the administration to “protect coal ash recycling” by enacting disposal rules that do not designate coal ash as a “hazardous waste.”

Soon after, the group collected 5,400 signatures and said on its blog:

Citizens for Recycling First has succeeded in gathering 5,000 signatures for its petition on a new White House website that promises a response from the Obama Administration.

Citizens for Recycling First is grateful to everyone who participated in getting friends, family and associates to sign the petition. The American Coal Ash Association and National Ready Mixed Concrete Association were particularly helpful in reaching out to their members.

The 5,000 signatures were particularly hard to gather because the White House website was frequently overloaded and unresponsive to people trying to sign.

Subsequently, a nonprofit called the Environmental Integrity Project took a closer look at the signatures and saw that about 2,000 of the names were in Mandarin. EIG hired a translator to dig a bit deeper and found that “the vast majority of the Chinese names in the petition are not authentic.” Many appeared to be generated by software, and they described food items or used other terms not commonly used as surnames.

Among them: Steamed Bun, Older Sister, Steamed Bun Little Sister, Small Steamed Bun, Big Steamed Bun, Big Bear, Big Grey Wolf, Little Duck, Little White Rabbit, Yellow Tiger, Come to China Big, Come to China Cat, Come to China Donkey, Come to China Little Girl, Handsome Six, Handsome Eight, Handsome Good Looking, Handsome Dragon and the Most Handsome Guy.

In a press release, Environmental Integrity Project Director Eric Schaeffer said:

If coal ash is so important to American jobs – as its Congressional supporters insist – why would the industry submit a petition with so many names in Chinese characters?

I called John Ward, chairman of Citizen for Recycling First, to ask him what was going on.

“I don’t know what happened,” he replied. “We put a petition on the White House website. We don’t have any control after that.”

“I have no idea how the Chinese characters showed up there. I’m starting to think that we got pranked.”

I have no idea what happened either. But I’m increasingly wary of so-called grass roots activities. Petitions? Letter-writing campaigns? Surveys? Polls?

Unless they come from reputable organizations–and even then–call me a skeptic.


  1. Ed Reid says

    Kinda’ like what happened with signatures on the Wisconsin recall petitions; and, survived court review.

    There was even the recent joke that we finally had proof Osama bin Laden was really dead, since he was now registered to vote in Chicago.

    I believe it is far more important to clean up the voter registration lists, as Florida is now doing (again), to limit vote fraud. Then we can worry about silly “petitions” on a White House website.

  2. says

    Great piece. Citizens for Recycling First is a coal industry front, right?

    The dangerous thing about these petitions is not so much who is signing them, but who’s behind them.

    • Marc Gunther says

      Thanks, Jen. Yes, they are a coal industry group although not fair to call them a “front” since they are very open about representing coal-industry recyclers and their employees. The issue is about how to promote and regulate what happens to coal ash.

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