MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- A three-judge mass litigation panel will hear the case of Southern West Virginia residents who say a Massey Energy subsidiary poisoned their drinking water supplies by pumping 1.4 billion gallons of coal slurry underground.
The lawsuit against Rawl Sales & Processing originated in Mingo County, but Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury was disqualified from presiding over the case last year because of a past attorney-client relationship with Virginia-based Massey.
The Supreme Court's acting chief justice said that could create the appearance of impropriety and lead to questions about his impartiality. Jackson Circuit Judge Thomas Evans was then assigned the case, but he recused himself earlier this year.
Last week, a state Supreme Court order officially transferred the case to a mass litigation panel led by Ohio County Circuit Judge James Mazzone. Circuit judges from Raleigh and Lincoln counties, John Hutchinson and Jay Hoke, will also preside over the case.
Some 550 current and former residents of Rawl, Lick Creek, Sprigg and Merrimac sued Massey and Rawl Sales for injecting coal slurry into worked-out underground mines between 1978 and 1987. Slurry is the wastewater produced when coal is washed to help it burn more efficiently.
Massey has denied any wrongdoing and defended the practice as legal. The lawsuit, however, claims slurry seeped through cracks in the earth into the groundwater, poisoning drinking wells.
The residents say decades of exposure to water that often ran orange, red or black caused developmental problems, cancers and other health problems.
The Department of Environmental Protection has imposed a moratorium on new coal slurry injection sites. Only 12 of the 13 currently permitted in West Virginia are active.
In a separate water-pollution case, five Massey subsidiaries argued Friday that a 2008 settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency protects it from being sued by the Sierra Club and other activist groups.
The federal lawsuit filed in April alleges more than 3,000 violations of the Clean Water Act and surface mining laws. Among other things, the plaintiffs claim runoff from as many as 16 West Virginia coal mines have tainted waterways with toxic aluminum.