The poll found that among those who said they were likely to vote in the 2012 election in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, 57 percent were against mountaintop removal and 20 percent supported it. But in the combined region of Eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, 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.
The above results were for a question that was preceded by a definition saying 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, the question said 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.
It's impossible to guess how much the definition skewed the results, but a separate group was asked simpler question, which did not define the practice, and they favored it by wide and clear margins, though a fourth of Eastern Kentuckians and a fifth of West Virginians said they didn't know one way or the other. On the more detailed question, the "don't know" group was much smaller.
After those questions, both groups were asked differently phrased questions about elected officials who favor strengthening or weakening regulations on mountaintop-removal mining, and about full enforcement and strength of the federal Clean Water Act, which the Environmental Protection Agency is citing in its stricter control of the practice. By clear majorities, voters in the coalfield said they favored full enforcement of the act to protect streams from mountaintop-removal mining, and even said they favored strengthening it to accomplish that.
But after two more questions, concluding with an argument and counter-argument about electricity, energy, national security, the economy, environmental regulation, damage to streams and health impacts, including birth defects, 56 percent of voters in the mountaintop-removal region said they favored the practice, while only 31 percent opposed it. Support for it was beyond the margin of error in Eastern Kentucky, at 62 percent to 26 percent but not in southern West Virginia, at 52-35 with a 9-point error margin. Still, the most likely result is that residents of the region favor the controversial practice, as hard as that might be for opponents of it to accept.
The poll was sponsored by Earthjustice, the Sierra Club and the Appalachian Mountain Advocates (formerly the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment) and was conducted by Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research & Consulting July 25-28. For the groups' press release, headlined "Powerful Opposition to Mountaintop Removal Mining in the Heart of Coal Country," click here. To read the poll for yourself, you can download the 2-megabyte document here. The maps below show the regional boundaries used in the poll results. It should be noted that coal mining is more prevalent in southern West Virginia than the region the poll defined as Eastern Kentucky, where some counties have no coal mining and a few have no coal at all.