In mid October of 2000, a rupture occurred at the bottom of a coal waste reservoir owned by Martin County Coal Corporation (MCCC-Massey). Impounded slurry and sludge materials from the reservoir traveled through underground mine works and burst through two mine portals on opposite sides of the mountain releasing more than 300 million gallons of coal waste into creeks and waterways of Martin County, KY. This paper examines people’s reactions to the Martin County coal waste disaster by examining levels of reported concern and perceptions of risk across the impacted community of Martin County in comparison to similar coal mining communities in the same watershed as well as elsewhere in Kentucky and West Virginia. Door-to-door, drop-off/ pick-up methods were used to survey people’s perceptions. As predicted, findings show a significant difference in public opinion over the risks associated with coal waste impoundments between the impacted county in comparison to other counties. The other robust predictors of perceived risks were quality of life and trust measures. Other factors found to be significant in some previous studies of risk perceptions, such as home ownership and occupation could also account for some differences in risk perceptions within and across counties. Overall, we conclude that our survey findings on trust are consistent with others who have theorized about the institutional interconnection between public trust and risk concerns regarding technological hazards. In our discussion, we address the need for government agencies, that are responsible for responding to and mitigating environmental hazards, to act in ways that merit public trust, restore public confidence, and alleviate public anxiety.

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