The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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August 18, 2011

Poll: Mountaintop mining opposed

Various environmental groups have a message for West Virginia officials: Coalfields residents don’t support surface mining and are willing to “punish” lawmakers who do not support additional measures for clean water.

The poll found that a majority of voters in West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee are against the practice of mountaintop removal.

“We’ve seen the polls that show national disapproval of mountaintop removal mining, but this poll clearly shows that the people in the heart of coal country have had it with mountaintop removal mining,”  said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice. “The time for this destructive practice is over. The people in Appalachia are making it clear in this poll that they recognize the threats to their health and communities. The Obama administration, Congress, and all of our elected leaders owe it to the people of Appalachia to stop this practice before even more damage is done.”

The survey was conducted by a bipartisan collaboration of Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research & Consulting and paid for by Earthjustice, the Appalachian Mountain Advocates and the Sierra Club.

“The survey data turns conventional wisdom on its head,” said Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Associates. “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.”

In those states, 57 percent said they oppose mountaintop removal, and only 20 percent support it. About 10 percent strongly supported the practice while 20 percent strongly opposed the practice of surface mining.

Despite West Virginia politicians’ distaste for the Environmental Protection Agency and increased federal regulation, a majority of citizens said they would support stronger clean water protections in regard to mountaintop removal mining.

“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.”

According to the poll, voters also plan to take their opinion on surface mining to the polls.

“Elected representatives in Appalachia are out of touch with their constituents,” said Joe Lovett, executive director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates. “The people of Appalachia 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.”

Ed Hopkins, director of the Environmental Quality program at the Sierra Club, also said public officials who support efforts to weaken the EPA are “out of step” with likely voters.

“The vast majority of people in Appalachia support strengthening Clean Water Act protections to safeguard their streams and rivers from this destructive and unpopular form of mining,” Hopkins said. “This poll should embolden the EPA to vigorously enforce its new policy on mountaintop removal coal mining. We urge the Obama administration to do more and do it now.”

Katheryn Hoffman, a member of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Fayette County resident, said she has been physically and emotionally drained by what she called a “nightmare” fight against mountaintop removal.

“These are all human rights violations and could not happen anywhere,” Hoffman said of mountaintop removal. “But, why are they happening here? We need to hold firm with Obama to try to stop this immediately, because if it continues much longer, there aren’t going to be any mountains left.”

During a teleconference with reporters, Hoffman was asked why, if residents do not support surface mining, do they elect officials who are not against the practice.

“Unfortunately, in West Virginia, we don’t have much a choice,” she said. “We have to hold our nose and vote. There’s no enforcement if the laws are there, and unfortunately, we don’t generally have candidates that aren’t paid for by the industry.”

Liz Judge, of Earthjustice, followed up Hoffman’s response by saying that the poll was likely a wake-up call for West Virginia politicians.

Initial responses from West Virginia representatives were likely less transformative than the organizations behind it had hoped.

U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall questioned the usefulness of the study.

“A poll by three environmental groups that concludes there is opposition to mountaintop mining in parts of Appalachia — there is nothing surprising there,” Rahall said. “Rather than stoking division, it would have been more productive if the same energies had been put into bringing opposing sides together.”

Congressman David McKinley’s office said his experience is not consistent with the results of the poll.

“The vast majority of Congressman McKinley’s constituents have expressed a strong desire to see the EPA’s job-killing regulations reined in,” said Katie Martin, McKinley’s press secretary.

In reaction to the poll, a spokesperson for Rep. Shelley Moore Capito emphasized the need for balance between environment and economy.

“Congresswoman Capito has always fought for an all-of-the-above energy solution that balances our nation’s expanding energy needs with our desire for environmental protection,” said Jamie Corley, a spokesperson for Capito. “ We can strike a balance. Unfortunately, over the past few years, the EPA has tipped this balance by abusing their authority and implementing burdensome, job-crushing regulations on the fossil fuel industry, while failing to offer a viable alternative to meet our nation’s energy needs.”

Sen. Joe Manchin and Sen. Jay Rockefeller also responded to the results of the poll, emphasizing balance between economy and environment.

“I have always been one to look for a balance between the environment and the economy,” Manchin said. “I believe reasonable people can come together and find common ground that will allow us to create jobs and use our lands in a much more productive and environmentally sound fashion.”

Rockefeller responded to the poll with a similar statement.

“I firmly believe that West Virginia can find a balance here,” Rockefeller said. “We are blessed with an abundance of natural resources, and there is no reason we can’t properly use them to support our economy, protect mining families and create jobs while ensuring our natural environment gets the protection it deserves and we all need. We can do that by truly listening to each other and working together to find solutions.”

The survey did yield some good news for the West Virginia coal industry. In West Virginia, 87 percent of West Virginians had favorable views of coal mining.

The poll follows a poll conducted by CNN recently in conjunction with their feature “Battle for Blair Mountain” that found nationally, 57 percent of people oppose mountaintop removal and 36 percent favored the practice.

— E-mail: tkuykendall@register-herald.com

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