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People back strip-mine rules, poll done for activists finds

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Appalachian residents support strengthening Clean Water Act restrictions on mountaintop removal and would punish at the ballot box public officials who work to weaken strip-mining regulations, according to a new poll released Tuesday.

Three-quarters of those surveyed in a four-state poll voiced support for "fully enforcing" or even increasing federal safeguards for streams, according to the poll, commissioned by a coalition of environmental groups.

Residents in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia have favorable views toward coal companies and toward mining in general, but they oppose mountaintop removal by wide margins, the poll found. Opposition to mountaintop removal -- and politicians who support the practice -- is strong across party lines.

"The survey data turns conventional wisdom on its head," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, whose Lake Research Associates conducted the survey in consultation with the Republican firm Bellwether Research & Consulting.

Coalfield political leaders, especially Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., have been pushing efforts to remove Clean Water Act protections that give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency supervision over state permitting of mountaintop removal mines.

In the four states polled, 48 percent of those surveyed said they are less likely to support an elected official who favors weakening environmental regulations on mountaintop removal. Forty-eight percent of those polled also said they are more likely to vote for elected officials who support strengthening such rules.

"Fully three-fourths of Republican voters and 68 percent of tea party supporters in this survey support increasing Clean Water Act protections from mountaintop-removal coal mining," said Christine Matthews, president of Bellwether Research & Consulting.

"Even in these economically stressed coal-country states, there is overwhelming support for increasing clean water safeguards -- a far cry from disarming the EPA, as some on the national stage have suggested."

The poll was conducted for the organizations Appalachian Mountain Advocates (formerly the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment), Earthjustice and the Sierra Club. Overall, the survey reached a total of 1,315 likely voters in the four states, and included oversamples in Kentucky and West Virginia. The survey was conducted July 25-31. The margin of error for the full sample was plus or minus 2.8 percentage points; the error margins for individual state and other subgroup results were higher.

Across the region, 57 percent of those surveyed said they oppose mountaintop removal, with 42 percent saying they strongly oppose the practice. Sixty-four percent of Democrats said they opposed mountaintop removal, compared to 60 percent of independents and 51 percent of Republicans.

Coal companies and coal mining in general received favorable reviews in the survey. For example, 87 percent of those surveyed in West Virginia said they had a favorable view of coal mining.

Regionwide, 26 percent of those surveyed said they had a favorable view of strip mining and 20 percent a favorable view of mountaintop removal.

Favorable views of both were higher in West Virginia, 44 percent for strip mining and 31 percent for mountaintop removal.

And the survey showed less opposition to mountaintop removal in West Virginia than was found in a 2004 poll, when measured by a basic question without any explanation of what mountaintop removal is. The 2004 survey found 56 percent of West Virginians opposed the practice, compared to 42 percent opposed in the new survey.

Pollsters said the coal industry's massive public-relations campaign in favor of mountaintop removal might have played some role in those numbers, but they also said responses to more-detailed questions showed that opposition is significant and intense among the region's voting population.

Both the 2004 and the 2011 polls asked those surveyed if they support or oppose mountaintop removal, defining the practice as when "the top of a mountain is removed to extract the coal and waste is disposed in nearby valleys and streams."

In 2004, 58 percent of West Virginias responded that they were opposed, with 41 percent saying they were strongly opposed. In this year's survey, 54 percent of West Virginians said they were opposed, with 45 percent saying they were strongly opposed.

"If there has been any attrition [in the opposition numbers], it's really only in the undefined ask of the question," said Daniel Gotoff, a partner at Lake Research.

"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 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."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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