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Bush vulnerable in state on mining, pollster says

Presidential challenger John Kerry should campaign against the Bush administration’s efforts to weaken restrictions on mountaintop removal mining, a prominent Democratic pollster said Wednesday.

Celinda Lake said that the results of a new survey show that West Virginians are overwhelmingly opposed to mountaintop removal and Bush’s moves to lessen regulation of the practice.

Lake said that the poll should change the conventional Democratic view that taking strong stands on the environment will hurt candidates in the Mountain State.

“They can campaign on this issue,” Lake said in a phone interview. “This is an issue that you don’t have to run away from. This is an issue that you can run on.”

The Kerry campaign did not respond to questions about the poll or to an inquiry for details about Kerry’s policy on mountaintop removal.

A Kerry spokeswoman, Kathy Roeder, said that, “on coal, John Kerry’s position is set.”

“Coal is part of America’s energy future,” she said. “It’s domestic and it’s part of our plan to reduce our reliance on foreign energy sources.”

Roeder said that Kerry opposes previous efforts by Bush to cut coal mine safety funding and would provide more money for federal research into ways to burn coal more cleanly.

Last month, Lake surveyed 500 West Virginians about mountaintop removal in a poll paid for by the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment.

The poll, with a margin of error of 4.4 percent, found that 56 percent of West Virginians oppose mountaintop removal, and that those who “strongly oppose” mountaintop removal outnumber those who “strongly favor” it by a 3-to-1 margin.

“The level of opposition and the intensity of that opposition is surprising,” Lake said. “I thought people would be more divided.”

Among union households, the opposition was much greater — 65 percent, according to the poll results. The United Mine Workers declined to comment on those findings.

“Rarely do we see such unanimity of opposition,” said Daniel Gotoff, a vice president of Lake’s polling firm, Lake Snell Perry & Associates.

During a news conference in Charleston, Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center, declared that the poll “has turned the conventional wisdom about mountaintop removal on its head.”

West Virginia politicians weren’t ready to go anywhere near that far.

Joe Manchin, the Democratic candidate for governor, said that he favors mountaintop removal if it is done “in accordance with the laws and the rules.”

Asked to elaborate, Manchin replied, “I don’t know what the law is, honestly. I haven’t studied them. We’re studying them now.”

Manchin said he would push for development of former mountaintop removal sites, but that he would not work to ban or severely limit the practice.

“You have people who would want to eliminate it completely,” Manchin said. “[But] I’m a centrist. I’m not extreme on either side of it.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Monty Warner was not available for comment. His campaign manager, Dick Leggitt, issued a short statement and said that the poll would not affect Warner’s campaign strategy.

“I am a sixth-generation West Virginian who has grown up in these mountains and I believe strongly in property rights,” Warner said in the statement. “I believe the state of West Virginia and West Virginia’s property owners should decide our state’s energy development issues, not Congress or the federal courts.”

Nationally, the Bush administration has rewritten Clean Water Act rules that govern valley fills, proposed to eliminate a stream buffer zone rule, and shifted the focus of a major government study of mountaintop removal toward streamlining the permit process for coal companies.

“This says there is a very strong opposition to Bush’s record on the environment,” Lake said of the poll. “This is a new debate where you can put the Bush administration solidly responsible for its actions.”

Reed Dickens, a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, dismissed the poll results and said West Virginians will reject Kerry’s “well-documented hostility to the coal industry.”

“This comes down to a very simple choice between John Kerry, who is completely controlled by radical environmental policies that would destroy jobs that have been in West Virginia for years, and President Bush, who is always looking for a common-sense approach that will not crush the economy of West Virginia,” Dickens said.

He could not immediately provide examples of Kerry’s “radical environmental policies.”

Michael Callaghan, a former state Democratic Party chairman and former state Environmental Protection secretary, said that he doubts that the poll will have much of an impact on state politics.

“Coal is a vital part of our economy,” Callaghan said. “Coal has got to be a part of the solution for our national energy crisis.

“That being said, where do you draw the line on the appropriate mining practices? People running for office are going to say that whatever type of mining is authorized by Congress is OK.”

Results of the poll are available online at www.appalachian-center.org


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