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Peabody, Wash U. Lock Horns with Man Behind Clean Coal Consortium Parody Website

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Coal!
The website of the Washington University Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization openly admits to "perpetuating the myth that coal can be used in a clean and sustainable manner," to being a "public relations tool for industry," to advancing coal industry "propaganda," distorting "public understanding" and hindering "real solutions." At first glance.

The consortium's real website at cleancoal.wustl.edu admits to no such thing, obviously. But an almost identically-named parody website, cleancoalwustl.org, does. And now, the man behind it, Brian DeSmet of St. Louis, is under legal pressure from Peabody Energy -- the world's largest private-sector coal company -- to quit his online hijnks.

The consortium is a research partnership between Washington University and corporate sponsors Peabody, Ameren, and Arch Coal. The stated goal: to "foster the utilization of coal as a safe and affordable source of energy." It was founded in December 2008. Within months, the CEOs of Peabody and Arch joined the school's Board of Trustees.

"There's no such thing as clean coal," says 40-year-old DeSmet, who works for the non-profit Missouri Coalition for the Environment but set up his site in the Fall of 2009 as a private citizen. "There's nothing wrong with doing research, but [the people at Wash U are] allowing themselves to be co-opted as a PR campaign for the coal industry."

DeSmet isn't the first to make this point. A flash mob of students protested a consortium event in early November.   

DeSmet says he drew inspiration from the activist stuntmen known as the Yes Men, who specialize in what they call "identity corrections," defined as "impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them." The Yes Men now have a movie out and claim their "targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else."    

Once his own site was up and running, DeSmet was contacted by a Wash U official asking he take down the University's logo. He obliged her request.
 
Then, at about 6:30 Wednesday evening, DeSmet received a letter via e-mail from local attorney Paul Fleischut representing Peabody. The letter demanded that DeSmet "immediately remove the Site" by 8 a.m. the following morning.

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Brian DeSmet's parody site
"If he wants to post his opinions under his own name, more power to him," Fleischut tells Daily RFT. "But here, he's doing it under the banner of the clean coal consortium...He's using our real name and our real logo, so in that respect it's different from the South Butt case...It's fraud and identity theft."    

Hours after receiving the letter, DeSmet took down the corporate sponsor logos from his site. Thursday morning, Fleischut asked for additional changes, such as changing the URL and deleting any mention of the consortium.

"I was like, 'Well that negates the whole idea of a parody website,'" DeSmet recalls.

He says he's sought legal assistance from a San Francisco attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a firm that's currently representing the Yes Men against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Fleischut confirms he'll be speaking with this attorney sometime today.

"DeSmet has known that people are objecting to the website for a long time," Fleischut says. "And he could just suspend [the site] until we work this out.  He has not yet done that." 


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