New poll details opposition to mountaintop removal

August 16, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

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.


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.

14 Responses to “New poll details opposition to mountaintop removal”

  1. Vernon says:

    I hope this poll gives some courage to the politicians who secretly oppose MTR but are terrified of the political liability (and coal industry money) if they say so openly or take any tangible action.

  2. Ken’s summary of the poll’s numbers is right on target, but I disagree with his assessment that there is “some significant bad news in this new survey for groups that are working to end mountaintop removal.” This poll represents only good news for those who oppose mountaintop removal and there is no comfort for the coal industry and its political supporters to be found in these results.

    You can read our full analysis of what the 2004 results say about today’s poll numbers here, but as I write there, the bottom line is this: “West Virginians by overwhelming margins want the Clean Water Act enforced and strengthened. When reminded what mountaintop removal involves, a solid majority opposes it. And a solid majority is willing to vote against politicians who try to weaken regulations on mountaintop removal. These attitudes cut broadly across party lines and every single demographic group.”

    The most important point of Ken’s post is this: Coalfield politicians are not reflecting the views of their constituents when they work to weaken Clean Water Act protections against mountaintop removal mining.

  3. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    In case anybody missed this, Dan — a former Gazette editorial page editor — is the communications director for Joe Lovett’s group, now called Appalachian Mountain Advocates, one of the groups that paid for this survey.

    While this explanation might make sense, and certainly Celinda Lake’s folks know more about interpreting polls than I do, the explanation of the change from the 2004 to the 2011 polls would have more credibility if it had been mentioned in any of the press materials distributed by the environmental groups … rather than dealt with only after I asked questions about it.

    One easily walks away with the notion that the comparison is something environmental groups would rather no one mention, as opposed to being something that has a perfectly reasonable explanation.


  4. Ken,

    The question that you are focusing so much attention on is the one that contains no description of mountaintop removal whatsoever. As you know, we believe the question containing a brief, neutral explanation of mountaintop removal offers a more telling response. In 2004 when that question was asked, 58 percent of West Virginians opposed mountaintop removal mining while 27 percent supported it. In today’s poll, the numbers for West Virginia were 54 percent opposed to 29 percent in favor. We don’t see that as a significant change. In fact, it’s within the poll’s margin of error.

    You are welcome to think we intentionally left out information in order to discourage people from comparing the two results, but, in fact, a comparison between the two polls shows that opposition to mountaintop removal mining remains very strong even after years of, as you put it, “the coal industry’s massive public relations campaign — not to mention all the free media featuring coalfield political leaders defending mountaintop removal.” There’s nothing there to hide, and there is nothing there that should make the coal industry believe that massive campaign has had any lasting effect.

    I think the focus on this single question – when every other point of comparison between the two polls shows remarkable consistency – is misplaced.

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Thanks for the discussion. I’ve updated my blog post with the results to the question with the description from the 2004 poll.

    As you know, the question with the description was not part of the materials that your organization made public in 2004 … see this link from your old website,

    Back then, the question that was considered important enough to share with the press and the public was the one without the description.

    But now, the question that’s important was one that — back in 2004 — wasn’t even important enough to release to the public.

    If, as you say, “the question containing a brief, neutral explanation of mountaintop removal offers a more telling response,” then why wasn’t that response made public in 2004 as well?


  6. Ken,

    Thank you for the discussion. As you know, I respect your work and your opinions. But I continue to disagree with you on this.

    Unfortunately, I cannot speak to the rationale for not including that in the public results in 2004. But I do think it’s very significant that there is minimal difference between the two polls when that brief, neutral description is included. As Daniel Gotoff said, I think that indicates that, to the extent the coal industry has been successful in making mountaintop removal a less toxic term on its face, that success vanishes when people are reminded even in the most objective terms possible what mountaintop removal entails. And that, I believe is the only significance the 2004 poll sheds on today’s results.

  7. A couple of people suggest they’re having trouble with the link to my blog post. If I can beg Ken’s indulgence, I’ll repeat it. Here it is:

  8. PJD says:


    I (and probably others) remain confused by your article. you seem to be saying that The 2011 survey contained a question regarding MTR that didn’t include a description of the process, while in 2004, it included a description of the process, and this is a likely explanation of the change in ioinion from 2004 to 2011. but then, you talk about a survey (in 2011?) where it did contain a description, and another (in 2011 too?) that contained pro/con background statements. Please edit your article so we can understand which survey is which.

  9. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Sorry that you’re confused. I went back into the article and added several references to 2004 or 2011, to try to make things clear.

    However, if you read carefully, similar questions were asked in both surveys regarding: 1) support or opposition to mountaintop removal, based on a short question, without any description of the practice; and 2) support or opposition to mountaintop removal, based on a short definition provided to the respondent.

    The difference at issue in the back-and-forth between Dan Radmacher and myself was in response to the question in both 2004 and 2011, WITHOUT the explanation of what mountaintop removal is. In West Virginia, the 2004 results for that question showed 56 percent opposed. In 2011, the same question produced a response in West Virginia of 42 percent opposed.

    If you read the comments from the pollster, Daniel Gotoff, in my post and from Dan in his comments, they are both pointing out that the only significant difference regarding the opposition figures comes out in that “no definition” question — the results for the more detailed question, with a definition, are much more similar (58 percent opposed in 2004, 54 percent opposed in 2011).

    I hope that clears up your confusion.


  10. PJD says:


    Thanks for taking the time to clarify this.

    Opinion polls are strange things, When I take one, the questions all too often seem to be either “loaded” to sway the respondent, or even more maddeningly, none of the choices reflect my (and many other) views on the matter. For example presidential election polls that leave Nader off the list of choices, or healthcare opinion polls that leave single-payer off the list of choices – which, when it is on the list of choices, gets chosen by a majority of those polled!

    A great example of the first type of dishonest opinion survey can be found here :

    The actual facts are that there is NO possibility under PA’s current government that state forest leases to Marcellus drillers would raise the amount of money in the question. PA is the only state in the US that has NO tax on gas extraction at all and our current governor intends to keep it that way.

  11. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Well, first of all, that link to the P-G is not a scientific poll or survey. My paper’s website insists on doing those silly reader surveys as well, and they are not to be confused with a survey done by a reputable pollster who knows how to write questions and develop a good sample population.

    In this instance, Lake Research is very well known and makes a lot of money doing polls for politicians and others, and they had the consultation with a Republican firm. If these firms consistently get things wrong, they don’t get hired anymore.

    Second, they came back with a couple of results (the decline in opposition to MTR in WV and the high favorables for coal companies) that I’m sure their clients didn’t like — that adds to their credibility, frankly.

    Finally, they released all of the questions and the order in which they were asked. This amount of transparency adds to the credibility of the results.


  12. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    To commenter John,

    I’ve sent several emails to you regarding your comments, and have not received a reply. If you want an explanation for your posts not appearing, contact me off-line at


  13. Charlee says:


    Sorry for the delayed response. I’ve just started doing some research on this issue. Could you (or Dan) provide a link directly to the 2004 survey? The link in your article only goes to the Appalachian Mountain Advocates website. I would like to compare some other shifts that you don’t comment on. Specifically, I am interested in the changes of “undecided” responses. If there are statistically significant shifts in how many people say they are “uncertain”, this could mean the region is especially ripe for more open discussion about the issue. In fact, I think changes in the “undecided” response numbers would be interesting for many reasons, a fruitful topic for discussion. This is why I’d like to see the entire 2004 poll, so I can see if any shifts occurred, and in what direction.


  14. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    The group has redone their website, and links have moved. I believe this will get you to the 2004 poll


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