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Coal group defends McConnell after report his wife is on board that gave to anti-coal campaign

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FRANKFORT, Ky. - A trade group representing Kentucky's coal industry defended Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell on Friday after a published report said his wife is a board member of an organization that has spent $50 million to close coal-fired power plants.

Yahoo News reported that Elaine Chao, McConnell's wife and the labour secretary under President George W. Bush, sits on the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies, a charity founded by former New York City mayor and media mogul Michael Bloomberg.

Chao joined the board a year after Bloomberg Philanthropies announced in 2011 a four-year, $50 million commitment to the Sierra Club for its "Beyond Coal" campaign, which has the goal to "retire one-third of the nation's aging coal fleet by 2020," according to the group's website.

"I believe it is important to recognize that Bloomberg's contribution was made well before Secretary Elaine Chao began her service as a board member of Bloomberg Philanthropies in April 2012," Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said in a statement.

The United Mine Workers of America, which endorsed Grimes on Saturday, said in a statement that Chao is free to join any board she chooses but added: "One would think that, as the spouse of a Kentucky politician, she would choose more carefully when it comes to taking a leadership role in an organization that had recently invested in the destruction of the American coal industry and the jobs of American coal miners."

The union represents about 2 per cent of the state's active coal miners, but has roughly 10,000 retired members in Kentucky. The Kentucky Coal Association has 23 member companies and 150 associate members, which it says represents about 90 per cent of the state's coal production.

Bloomberg Philanthropies made a $25 million payment as part of that donation in 2012, the year that Chao joined the board.

Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for Bloomberg, said Chao was not involved in the decision to give the money to the Sierra Club and had nothing to do with the group's continuing to fund the project.

A spokeswoman for the McConnell campaign did not respond to questions about whether Chao knew about the donation when she joined the board.

Declining demand for coal has led to the loss of more than 7,000 jobs in the eastern Kentucky coalfields since January 2012. Both McConnell, the Senate minority leader, and Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes frequently talk about their support of the coal industry and have denounced proposed Environmental Protection Agency emission standards that would limit utilities' ability to replace aging coal-fired power plants.

"There simply isn't a more pro-coal senator in the Senate than Sen. McConnell, period," McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore said.

In 2012, the Kentucky Coal Association released a white paper about the Sierra Club titled "Know Thy Enemy," which included a detailed breakdown of the Sierra Club's funding. The paper said the $50 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies "will fund a significant portion of the campaign" and allowed the Sierra Club to double its staff to 200 full time workers and expand its "Beyond Coal" campaign from 15 states to 45 states.

Bissett said he believes Bloomberg, listed as "the guiding force behind Bloomberg Philanthropies," has softened his views on coal in recent years. As evidence, he pointed to Bloomberg's comments in April, when he said there should be systems in place to help people who have lost jobs due to closed coal plants and mines, and a July 2013 fundraiser Bloomberg held for Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., an outspoken advocate for the coal industry.

"Since Chao joined the board, Bloomberg has made public statements demonstrating that he now understands that his actions against coal are hurting people," Bissett said. Wolfson did not respond to a message asking if Bloomberg's views on coal had changed.

The Yahoo! story also noted that Chao joined the board of Wells Fargo in 2011, which in 2006 decided to limit its financing of what's known as mountaintop removal mining. "This policy was developed by the lines of business and did not involve members of Wells Fargo's Board of Directors," the bank said in a statement.

Chao has taken an active role in McConnell's campaign, appearing with him at campaign events and filming a TV ad that started airing statewide this week defending his voting record on women's issues.

A spokeswoman for the Grimes campaign declined to comment when asked about the Yahoo! report.

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