Survey Sheds Light on Impact of Impoundments on Communities
Seventy percent of Wyoming and Mingo county households who responded to a Wheeling Jesuit University survey on impoundment safety and stability believe there is some possibility that the impoundment in their community might rupture in the future.
That’s just one finding from a survey of Wyoming and Mingo county residents that was distributed and collected, in coordination with officials and students from Eastern Kentucky University and Wheeling Jesuit University, and West Virginia University in April 2005. The survey was designed Dr. Stephanie McSpirit, Associate Professor of Sociology at Eastern Kentucky University to gather and analyze trends in public opinion about coal impoundments, their current effect on communities, and their potential dangers.
The survey was part of the Coal Impoundment Project, a pilot project developed by the National Technology Transfer Center, the Center for Educational Technologies®, Wheeling Jesuit University, West Virginia University and the National Energy Technology Laboratory, and funded through the efforts of Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
The project is designed to identify coal impoundments in West Virginia, to alert residents of emergency situations and evacuation plans, improve safety and examine alternatives for impounding coal waste and sludge in the Mountain State. The program is under the leadership of J. Davitt McAteer, Vice President for Sponsored Programs at Wheeling Jesuit University and former chief of the U.S. Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The survey was a modification of an instrument that was previously prepared by Dr. McSpirit at Eastern Kentucky University and distributed in Martin and Perry counties in Kentucky after a 2000 impoundment break released over 300 million gallons of coal sludge, slurry and black water into area waterways.
The survey teams contacted 605 homes, and 407 homes accepted the survey. Of those that agreed to participate, 256 returned completed surveys. Follow-up meetings were held in Williamson and Pineville, and featured a discussion of the survey results, coal impoundments, the environment and coal-mining-related issues.
Key results in the survey are:
- Residents are generally satisfied with their quality of life. Nearly 4 out of 10 residents (37 percent) reported the overall quality of life in their community as “good” to “very good.”
- Crime/Drugs, unemployment, health problems and sewage were all rated the principal “serious problems” among area residents. Economic growth also remains an overriding and principal issue among residents, as 61 percent of those surveyed cited economic growth as a serious problem facing their communities.
- Drinking water is a problem. Twenty-nine percent of survey respondents rated the quality of the drinking water in their community as a serious problem. Though certainly
not as striking as 8 out of 10 citizens in Martin County, Ky., who rated drinking water as a serious issue after the 2000 spill there, this percentage seems to reflect a high overall concern with drinking water.
- Households with employment or business ties to coal mining were more likely to agree (53 percent) or strongly agree (33 percent) that the coal industry provides jobs and economic opportunity to local people. Whereas 88 percent of those linked to the industry acknowledged the benefits associated with coal mining on the local economy, only 56 percent (40 percent agree, 16 percent strongly agree) of those with no direct ties to the industry identified local economic benefits associated with coal-mining activities.
- The public is reluctant to concede that the possible economic benefits of impoundments outweigh their costs. Of households with ties to the coal industry, 43 percent either disagreed or strongly disagreed that the economic benefits associated with coal and coal waste impoundments outweigh the risks. Likewise, among households with no direct links to the coal industry, 45 percent either disagreed or strongly disagreed with this assertion.
- Coal waste impoundments are a high-hazard, high consequence technology. A majority (53 percent) of households with ties to the coal industry either agreed or strongly agreed that an impoundment break would result in certain death, whereas 61 percent of households with no ties to the industry agreed or strongly agreed with that statement. Moreover, an equal 60 percent of households (both with ties to the coal industry and without ties) either agreed or strongly agreed that an impoundment breakthrough would kill many people at one time.
- Impoundment safety and stability remain questionable. Households with ties to the coal industry and households with no ties shared similar views on this issue. Seventy percent of households with ties, and 73 percent of households without ties, either strongly disagreed or disagreed or just didn’t know about the overall stability of the impoundment in their community. Overall, respondents in 7 out of 10 homes believe that there is some possibility that the impoundment in their community might rupture in the future.
- When it comes to trust, county emergency responders come first. When asked whom they trusted, households ranked county emergency responders first, followed by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), state agencies, and coal companies. Households with ties to the coal industry were slightly more likely to trust and concede authority to coal companies, MSHA and state agencies than other households.
The survey results are featured in the project’s 2004-2005 Annual Report.