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April 07, 2014

West Virginians and North Carolinians Agree - It's Time for Serious Environmental Protections

Wv water crisisIn the wake of dangerous coal chemical and coal ash spills in their states already this year, West Virginia and North Carolina voters have gotten a wake-up call on the need for environmental and public health protections - and they know it.

According to two recent polls conducted by Hart Research on behalf of the Sierra Club, a majority of West Virginians and North Carolinians believe that it is high time to get serious by taking action on policy that protects our families and communities.

On January 9th, a coal chemical plant owned by Freedom Industries spilled 7,500 gallons of toxic 4-methylcyclohexane methanol - part of the coal production process - into the Elk River, just upstream of the largest water treatment plant in West Virginia. The contamination affected drinking water for 300,000 people across nine counties in the Kanawha Valley. Local emergency rooms treated 169 patients for symptoms related to chemical exposure, and ten people were admitted to hospitals for non-life-threatening symptoms.

West Virginians were shocked and angry. According to a poll conducted between February 4th – 7th, 73 percent of Mountain State voters agree that their state "has spent too little attention to addressing threats to air and water, and that the Elk River spill is a wakeup call that things must change."

More than two in three voters across the political spectrum say that "stronger regulations and better enforcement of existing regulations would have prevented the spill" (79 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of independents, and 57 percent of Republicans).

And 62 percent of voters say they would be more likely to support a candidate who favors "strong regulations and enforcement to protect the water, air, and health of West Virginians."

"You can throw the coal industry's conventional wisdom out the window," says Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "[These polls are] yet another indication that Republicans, Democrats, and Independents in coal-dependent states want leaders who will stand up to big coal companies and enact common-sense initiatives to protect our air, our water, and our families from toxic coal ash and pollution."

Dan River coal ash spill - courtesy Appalachian VoicesNorth Carolinians received a similar shock in early February, when a Duke Energy facility spilled tens of thousands of tons of coal ash into North Carolina's Dan River. What's more, the Southern Environmental Law Center says that this plant has been leeching arsenic, boron, and sulfate into groundwater for years, and that "Duke Energy had experienced coal ash structural failures at three of its other facilities in North Carolina."

Voters in the Tar Heel state responded powerfully. A March 10th - 13th poll found that 63 percent of voters think state leaders are not doing enough to protect the state's rivers and streams from contamination. And an overwhelming 83 percent of North Carolinians feel that coal ash should be treated as a hazardous substance that needs to be regulated.

The issue crosses party lines here too, with overwhelming majorities of Democrats (91 percent), independents (85 percent), and Republicans (75 percent) all supporting designating coal ash as a hazardous substance.

If all of this wasn't bad enough news for big coal and special interests, voters in both states hold the coal industry responsible. Two-thirds of West Virginians say that the coal industry bears some or a lot of the responsibility for air and water contamination, while 70 percent of North Carolinians say Duke Energy is totally or mostly to blame for the spill.

The so-called conventional wisdom peddled by the coal industry has been turned on its head, and even in coal country the results are clear: voters want leaders who won't cave to the special interests in the coal industry and who will stand up for clean water and public health protections. It's time our elected officials started paying attention.

-- David Shadburn, Sierra Club Intern

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