Poll: Appalachian voters oppose mountaintop mining, back regulation

Green groups released a poll of Appalachian voters Tuesday that shows opposition to “mountaintop removal” coal mining and backing for politicians that favor tougher environmental regulation of the controversial practice.

The poll — which also shows powerful support for increasing Clean Water Act protections — comes as Capitol Hill Republicans are pushing measures that would curtail the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department regulation.

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But the survey — which questioned 1,315 voters across West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia — finds that 38 percent oppose the practice, while 24 percent favor it.

Mountaintop removal is a type of strip mining in which companies blow the tops off peaks in order to access the seams of coal beneath. The rock, soil and other debris is pushed into adjacent valleys, burying tiny streams that form the headwaters of larger rivers below.

When asked about the practice after being read a short description, opposition among respondents rose to 57 percent, while 20 percent were in favor.

“On this measure ... public opinion crosses typical political boundaries, including 64% of Democrats, 60% of independents, and even a 51% majority of Republicans,” states a summary of the poll by the Democratic firm Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research & Consulting. 

Bellwether works with Republicans and environmental groups, among other clients.

Earthjustice, Appalachian Mountain Advocates and the Sierra Club released the poll.

In another question, 48 percent said they would be less likely to support an elected official who favored weakening environmental regulation of mountaintop removal, while 15 percent would be more likely to back these politicians.

The poll also finds that 76 percent favor “fully enforcing” the Clean Water Act to protect streams and other waters from mountaintop removal mining, while 8 percent opposed it.

The poll, conducted in late July, has a margin of error of 2.7 percent.

Many elected officials from both parties in West Virginia and other coal states resist EPA efforts to toughen oversight of mountaintop mining.

But Celinda Lake, the president of Lake Research Partners, told reporters on a conference call that the results upend the “false conventional wisdom” of voter support for mountaintop mining in Appalachian states.

“I think this poll is going to be an awakening for elected officials,” said Liz Judge, a spokeswoman for Earthjustice. 

Attorney Joe Lovett, the head of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, said he hoped the poll results would make lawmakers from outside the region less willing to defer to coal-state politicians that are seeking to weaken EPA’s hand.

The poll shows that opposition to mountaintop mining persists even when respondents are read dueling arguments about the practice. In one question, voters heard two statements:

One noted that coal is an important part of the U.S. economy and national security, and that “killing jobs is the wrong thing to do in this recession,” among several pro-coal arguments.

The other argued against mountaintop mining, calling it bad for the economy and environment, noting harm to nearby communities including birth defects and that mountaintop removal replaces jobs with machines.

After hearing these statements, 50 percent opposed mountaintop mining (including 34 percent “strongly” opposed), while 27 percent were in favor (including 14 percent strongly in favor).

The survey comes just days after CNN released a separate poll that found 57 percent of the public is opposed to mountaintop-removal mining, while 36 percent support the practice and 7 percent are neutral.


—Andrew Restuccia contributed.

This post was updated at 10:40 a.m., 11 a.m. and 11:33 a.m.