Coal Tattoo

New poll details opposition to mountaintop removal

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Coal River Mountain as seen from nearby Kayford Mountain. Photo courtesy of Coal River Mountain Watch.

Last week’s CNN poll about mountaintop removal had some Coal Tattoo readers wanting more … and today, we’ll get more.

There’s a new poll out this morning examining public attitudes across Appalachia about the coal industry, mountaintop removal and environmental protection. It was paid for by Appalachian Mountain Advocates (formerly the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment), Earthjustice and the Sierra Club. The polling was done by the Democratic firm Lake Research Partners, with consulting by a GOP firm, Bellwether Research & Consulting. There’s a news release here, a poll summary, and the more detailed results.

The environmental groups are touting the fact that the poll, conducted in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee,  found strong support for continuing — and even increasing — Clean Water Act safeguards to protect streams from mountaintop removal:

Three-quarters support fully enforcing—and even increasing protections in — the Clean Water Act to safeguard streams, rivers, and lakes in their states from mountaintop removal coal mining. Fully 76% of voters across these four states support this proposal, including a 62% majority who feel that way strongly. Just 8% of voters oppose it.

Support for this proposal is far-reaching, encompassing solid majorities of Democrats (86%), independents (76%), Republicans (71%), and Tea Party supporters (67%).

Such results, of course, fly in the face of efforts by some in Congress (especially Southern West Virginia’s own Rep. Nick J. Rahall) who want to remove Clean Water Act and U.S. EPA oversight over state mining permit reviews.

Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Associates, said:

The survey data turns conventional wisdom on its head. Not only does it show Appalachian voters opposing mountaintop removal and by wide margins, it also underscores that voters in these states are now treating this as a voting issue, and promise to punish elected officials who weaken clean water and environmental regulations on mountaintop removal.

But there is also some significant bad news in this new survey for groups that are working to end mountaintop removal …  It’s not mentioned in the press materials being distributed today, but it’s worth remembering all the same.

Seven years ago,  a survey by the same firm, conducted in West Virginia for some of the same environmental organizations,  asked this question:

As you may know, coal companies in West Virginia mine coal from mountains through a process called mountaintop removal mining. Do you favor or oppose mountaintop removal mining or are you undecided?

The results? Thirty-nine percent said they strongly opposed mountaintop removal and another 17 percent said they somewhat opposed practice, for a total of 56 percent opposed.

This time around, the pollsters asked:

As you may know, coal companies in [STATE] mine coal from mountains through a process called mountaintop removal mining. Do you favor or oppose mountaintop removal mining or are you undecided?

The results?

Well, across the region, strong opposition is 27 percent. Another 11 percent said they “somewhat oppose,” for  a total of 38 percent of those surveyed saying they’re against mountaintop removal.

For the more direct comparison — the 2004 poll was West Virginia alone, while the new one includes three other states — the new poll found 42 percent of West Virginians opposed and 34 percent in favor. The share of West Virginians who oppose mountaintop removal was down by 14 percentage points, if you compare the two polls.

Could it be that the coal industry’s massive public relations campaign — not to mention all the free media featuring coalfield political leaders defending mountaintop removal — is having an impact?

I asked Daniel Gotoff, a partner at Lake Research Associates, that question, and he said:

One possible explanation is that the terminology, without any definition or description, has become a little less toxic.

The results don’t end there, though, and some other questions and answers are worth also examining.

For example, those surveyed in 2011 were asked about mountaintop removal in the context of a simple description of the practice:

As you may know, coal companies in [STATE] mine coal from mountains through a process called mountaintop removal mining where the top of a mountain is removed to extract the coal and waste is disposed in nearby valleys and streams. Do you favor or oppose mountaintop removal mining or are you undecided?

The results?

In this scenario, fully 57% oppose mountaintop removal and with noticeable intensity (42% strongly oppose), compared to just 20% who support it (10% strongly). On this measure, too, public opinion crosses typical political boundaries, including 64% of Democrats, 60% of independents, and even a 51% majority of Republicans.

UPDATED:

In West Virginia, the results in 2011 for that question — which included the short description of mountaintop removal — were 54 percent opposed, including 45 percent strongly opposed.

Back in the 2004 poll, those surveyed were also asked this similar question —

As you may know, coal companies in West Virginia mine coal from mountains through a process called mountaintop removal mining where the top of a mountain is removed to extract the coal and waste is disposed in nearby valleys and streams. Do you favor or oppose mountaintop removal mining or are you undecided?

The results? Fifty-eight percent of those polled in West Virginia were opposed, with 41 percent strongly opposed. So the total opposed dropped by four percentage points, while those strongly opposed increased by four percentage points.

Daniel Gotoff of Lake Research provided several explanations for the differing numbers between 2004 and 2011:

The first is that if there has been any attrition [in the opposition numbers], it’s really only in the undefined ask of the question, so if proponents of mountaintop removal coal mining have had any success, and I think that’s a question still, but if they’ve had any success in making the term itself less toxic or radioactive, that success is pretty ephemeral.

As soon as you provide even the simplest definition, you end up with majority opposition in the state of West Virginia.

The second is that if you look at the intensity of opposition, it’s really only increased over time. So back in 2004, with the explanation 41 percent of voters strongly opposed it. Right now, we’re up to 45 percent strongly oppose it.

In their new survey, pollsters also alternated reading those being surveyed two statements about mountaintop removal:

— (Some/Other) people say that coal is an important part of America’s economy and national security, and killing jobs is the wrong thing to do in this recession. Nearly half of all electricity produced in the U.S. is from coal, and increasing coal mining and using the most efficient methods frees America from our dependence on foreign oil, keeps energy costs low, grows jobs and the local economy.

— (Some/Other) believe mountaintop removal is bad for the economy and the environment and is causing ongoing harm to nearby communities, including increasing the number of birth defects and other serious health conditions. Mountaintop removal replaces workers with machines and explosives. It has filled nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams with billions of tons of mining waste, killing wildlife and destroying forests.

The results?

Region-wide, 50 percent said they opposed mountaintop removal and 27 percent said they favored it. In West Virginia, 45 percent said they opposed mountaintop removal (35 percent strongly) and 38 percent said they favored it.

Overall, the survey reached a total of 1,315 likely voters in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Virginia, including oversamples in Kentucky and West Virginia. The survey was conducted July 25 – 31, 2011. The margin of error for the full sample was plus- or minus- 2.8 percentage points.

Interestingly, the survey found vary strong favorable opinions of coal companies and coal mining in general  — 87 percent of West Virginians expressed favorable views of coal mining, for example.

They survey also found:

Efforts to associate opponents of mountaintop removal with economic costs fly in the face of public skepticism. In fact, solid majorities of voters in these Appalachian states believe either that “environmental protections are often good for the economy” (40%) or “have little or no impact on the economy” (20%). Just one-quarter of voters (25%) believes that “environmental protections are often bad for the economy”.

And, it concluded:

Voters in Appalachia would also use this issue as a criterion in electoral choices, and are far less likely to support public officials who would weaken environmental protections on mountain top removal mining and more likely to support those who would strengthen those protections.

Joe Lovett, executive director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, said:

Elected representatives in Appalachia are out of touch with their constituents. The people of Appalachian want to be protected from mountaintop removal mining. They want environmental regulations enforced. But in Congress and statehouses, officials protect special interests instead, working to gut the Clean Water Act instead of enforcing it and strengthening it.