Judges Will Try Anew to Settle Coal Slurry Lawsuit


"Coal industry claims underground slurry injection is safe; critics say slurry leaches into water tables with harmful results."

Two judges will try again this week to settle a long-running medical monitoring lawsuit over claims that Massey Energy Co. poisoned hundreds of southern West Virginia wells with coal slurry.

The first mediation attempt by Judges Alan Moats and Derek Swope failed to produce a deal last fall. But the judges have summoned the lead attorneys to a two-day meeting Tuesday and Wednesday at the Charleston Town Center Marriott.

The judges were assigned to handle the case through the state's mass litigation panel. Their order reconvening the mediation requires the discussions and any resulting settlement to remain confidential.

More than 700 current and former residents of Rawl, Lick Creek, Sprigg and Merrimac claim their water supply was contaminated after Massey and a subsidiary, Rawl Sales and Processing, pumped 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry into worked-out underground mines between 1978 and 1987.

The residents believe the slurry, a byproduct of washing coal to make it burn more cleanly, then leached into their wells and poisoned the brown, red and black water that ran from their taps.

For decades, coal companies in Appalachia have injected slurry into worked-out mines as a cheap alternative to dams and other systems that can safely store or treat it. The industry claims underground injection is safe, but critics say slurry leaches into water tables through natural and man-made cracks in the earth.

The plaintiffs argue that chronic exposure to metals and chemicals are to blame for birth defects, developmental disabilities and a range of ailments including cancer.

In November, the judges demanded every plaintiff attend the mediation conference or risk being dropped from the lawsuit, so they piled into cars and buses and traveled from as far as Ohio and the Carolinas to Charleston.

This time, the plaintiffs' presence is not required.

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