Virginians believe the quality of their air and water is pretty good, according to a statewide Gallup poll released yesterday. But environmental activists said the results also show state residents are vastly misinformed on some environmental issues.
And most state residents are unaware of a bottle bill that is a leading environmentalist priority.
Asked about acid rain, hazardous waste, soil erosion and water pollution, most respondents cited only pollution of lakes and streams as a moderate or severe problem. Most rated the other areas as moderate, small or nonexistent problems, a view more optimistic than that of most environmentalists.
Robert T. Dennis, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, a lobbying and education group, said acid rain is a "very serious problem" in Virginia.
He said soil erosion is a "substantial" problem, hazardous waste is "an extremely serious problem" and groundwater pollution is a "growing problem."
Lake and stream pollution is present, but "I"m not terribly concerned about lake and stream pollution because we are trying to deal with it," Dennis said. Major waterways are getting cleaner, he said.
The poll was done for the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, located at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.
Some answers appeared discouraging for environmentalists.
More than half the respondents -- 56 percent -- had never heard of a legislative proposal to require a 10-cent deposit for soft drink and beer containers, a perennial loser in the General Assembly.
"I really thought there was more awareness than that," Dennis said. But those who had heard of the bill supported it, by a 75-to-25 margin.
Most Virginians do not know what underground water is, according to the poll. (It is present in pockets, not vast underground pools, as some believe).
Most described groundwater pollution from septic system wastes as, at worst, a minor problem in their area.
But Edward Born, the center's assistant director for publications, said experts believe septic waste is the No. 1 threat to groundwater.
Born theorized that Virginians believe lake and stream pollution is a major problem because contamination is so visible.
"If you cut your foot on a rusting can on the beach, that's pollution," said Born.
Issues such as leakage of the pesticide Kepone into the James River, and criticism of the state's laggard record in controlling discharges by industrial and municipal plants also brought the issue before the public, Born said.
Nearly half of those responding, 48 percent, said the state government is doing a good job of protecting the environment, 8.6 percent rated the job as excellent and 35.4 percent rated it as fair.
Dennis rated the state a little differently: "Somewhere between fair and good," but with "some real horror stories," such as poor regulation of surface mining.
The poll showed 10.5 percent of Virginians know someone whose well water is contaminated by bacteria, which Born said translates into between 400,000 and 700,000 people statewide.
It showed 7 percent knew someone with chemically contaminated well water, which Born said could translate into from 225,000 to 550,000 people.
Even assuming the same contaminated well is mentioned by more than one person, "that's a lot of people," he said.
Gallup, paid $16,950 to conduct the survey, telephoned a random sample of 1,628 Virginia residents between May 28 and June 12.
The survey was funded in part by a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.