Coal Tattoo

Blair Mountain, climate science and strip-mine spin

There were a couple of interesting coal-related commentaries in the West Virginia and Kentucky papers over the weekend that are worth a look and some brief discussion.

First, archeologist Harvard Ayers wrote in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail about the continuing controversy over the CNN special on mountaintop removal.  Harvard points out that, while CNN titled its show Battle for Blair Mountain, some of the more interesting things about the current fight over the historic site went unreported:

The national audience for this prime-time show can be forgiven if they still wondered at the end of the feature what this struggle of brave coal miners fighting and dying on Blair Mountain was, and why this has any relevance today.

Instead, host Soledad O’Brien and the producers of the feature presented something that would more properly be titled, “Stopping Mountaintop Removal Costs Coal Jobs.” Using the decades-old industry excuse for destroying communities and mountains of “environmentalists versus jobs,” CNN insulted the people of the coalfields of Appalachia. They pitted the logic of stopping this incredibly destructive mining practice of mountaintop removal against the emotional plea of a family who would lose a job, and who had no concern at all for impacts on their neighbors and their mountains.

Harvard goes on:

The actual “Battle ‘for’ Blair Mountain” is a fascinating story that has little to do with environmentalists or jobs. It begins with the original 1921 battle itself, and the reasons the coal miners were eager to lay their lives on the line. West Virginia coal companies, unlike companies in Illinois and other nearby states, hated unions. The reason? You guessed it — cutting corners on safety and labor costs maximizes profits.

Over in Kentucky, my friend Al Cross, a former Courier-Journal political writer who now directs the Institute for Rural Journalism at U.K., had an interesting commentary called Right, left both deceive. He starts off taken GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry to task for his statements questioning the science of global warming:

That’s balderdash. At least 97 percent of scientists who regularly publish peer-reviewed climate research believe the earth is warming and that human activities are a contributing factor. The only real debates are over how much, and the likely timeline for future warming.

There is no proof that climate scientists have manipulated data to get more money for research, or to prove the earth is warming. The much-ballyhooed “climategate” involving some top climate scientists was based on emails that “show they stonewalled skeptics and discussed hiding data — but the messages don’t support claims that the science of global warming was faked,” The Associated Press reported in 2009, based on an evaluation by the director of scientific freedom, responsibility and law at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A series of official investigations have found likewise. In the most recent, the National Science Foundation announced this month that its inspector general found no misconduct by a leading climate scientist who was the main author of the 2008 study that showed a big, recent spike in Northern Hemisphere temperatures. Another study published this year confirmed those findings.

Then, Al writes that “message machines on the left can mislead, too.” His example? The recent environmental group-funded poll examining public opinion about mountaintop removal among residents of  West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Al writes:

We saw that this month, as Earthjustice, the Sierra Club and The Appalachian Mountain Advocates released a poll of likely voters in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia on mountaintop-removal mining. Their news release was headlined “New Poll Finds Powerful Opposition to Mountaintop Removal Mining in the Heart of Coal Country,” and referred to “voters across Appalachia” and “the heart of Appalachia.”

Those lines were balderdash, too. The “powerful opposition” was in the four states as a whole, with 57 percent against mountaintop removal and 20 percent supporting it, but in the main region where mountaintops are being mined and removed, Eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, the results were quite different.

We’ve talked before on Coal Tattoo about the bright spot in this poll for the coal industry — major support across the region for coal companies and coal mining in general, despite the opposition to mountaintop removal. Al, though, dug a bit deeper into what the poll indicates in various parts of the states within the region, and reports:

The poll found that among those who said they were likely to vote in 2012, 57 percent were against mountaintop removal and 20 percent supported it. But in the prime mountaintop-removal region, the results were 41 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed. That was within the error margin of plus or minus 7 percentage points for each of those figures. In Eastern Kentucky, more people favored mountaintop mining, and in southern West Virginia, more people opposed it, but the smaller sample sizes meant there was no clear advantage in those results, either.

Those results in the narrow parts of the region where mountaintop removal is performed aren’t necessarily that surprising in some ways, but Al’s right in pointing them out and the rest of us in the media should have looked more closely and done so as well.

But then Al went a bit off the tracks, in my view, with criticism of the way mountaintop removal is described in one of the poll questions:

But the poll was probably skewed by a flawed description of the practice, which said coal companies “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.” Boiled down, that says waste is put into streams, creating a mental image of unwholesome substances being dumped into creeks and rivers. That is not quite what happens. Small headwater steams, often wet-weather or intermittent, are covered by valley fills made of the rock and dirt mined from the mountains, and the drainage from the fills sends pollution downstream.

Given the strong emerging scientific consensus about mountaintop removal and its pervasive and irreversible impacts on the environment, the question was probably worded about a neutrally as one could expect. And regardless, you’ve got to give the citizen groups and their pollster credit for publicly releasing massive details on this survey, unlike most other polls done by special interest groups.

Regular readers of Coal Tattoo know that my friends in the environmental community often get upset when I point out errors of fact or exaggerations in their public statements, their blogs, and their other media outreach.  Their feeling seems to be that they’re on what they believe is “the right side,” and it shouldn’t matter if they get a number wrong here or there or inflate things to help make their point. It’s maddening when they do this, because the existing data, numbers and science already give them such strong ammunition. I don’t know why they reach for something more, something that they can’t prove.

Some folks hit me with the old line about the media forcing a “false equivalency,” trying to compare massively misleading statements by the coal industry to what they believe are minor errors by the other side. There’s no question that the media — always on alert and fearing charges of being “liberal” — does this. I’m sure I’ve done it myself.

Frankly, the comparison here by Al Cross has that ring to it.

The science supporting the notion that the world is warming, that this warming is  caused by human pollution, and that the impacts of this warming are going to be devastating to our society … well, the science supporting that is simply overwhelming.  To not simply question those basic points, but to — as Rick Perry did — blame it all on scientists manipulating data — is just remarkable.

On the other hand, the environmental groups simply did what special interest groups do — they touted the more favorable numbers in their  poll, didn’t talk about the less favorable ones, and criticized the media when we pointed out some not-so-favorable results.

Moreover, this was just one poll. There have only been a few others released publicly on this issue, and each provides only a snapshot-in-time view of public opinion on mountaintop removal. A scientific paper about this poll would likely have been forced through the peer-review process to discuss the unfavorable results, just as good scientists like WVU’s Michael Hendryx go to great lengths to explain the limitations of their work.

Honestly, I wish I had included the numbers Al Cross wrote about in my original coverage of the mountaintop removal poll, along with quotes from the pollsters explaining what they think those results mean. I’m glad Al pointed them out, but I it’s hard to buy into the conclusion that not talking up those results is equivalent to dismissing the overwhelming science of global warming.