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Hundreds seek mediation in well lawsuits

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than 650 people crowded into the Little Theater at the Charleston Civic Center on Monday morning in their effort to mediate more than 700 lawsuits filed against A.T. Massey Coal Co., now called Massey Energy.

Many brought bottles of orange- and brown-colored contaminated water that came from their wells in Mingo County.

Residents and former residents from Rawl, Lick Creek, Merrimac and Sprigg believe their drinking water was polluted by a coal slurry plant operated by Rawl Sales and Processing, a Massey subsidiary, beginning in the mid-1980s.

Billy Ray Miller, of Rawl, held up a Mason jar filled with bright orange water he got from the well in his back yard.

"I drank it for 25 years. I made Kool-Aid, lemonade and baby milk from it. Today, I have kidney stones," Miller said.

"I like to fish in the Tug River. But when you did catch fish, they had sores and slimy stuff on them."

Miller, 52, worked mines for 24 years owned by U.S. Steel and Pittston Coal.

Bruce Stanley, a lawyer with Reed Smith in Pittsburgh, represents many of the plaintiffs.

"A lot of other people were unable to come today because they were physically unable to be here. Many are bedridden. Others could not come because they are serving in the military or had to go to work today," Stanley said.

Massey did not return a telephone call to its "media hotline" about this week's mediation efforts.

Stanley and other plaintiff lawyers tried to file a class-action lawsuit in Mingo County, where all plaintiffs would be part of one suit.

After Mingo County Judge Michael Thornsbury refused to allow that, about 700 individual suits were filed.

During a meeting also open to the public, Mercer County Circuit Judge Derek C. Swope told plaintiffs and lawyers, "Mediation is a confidential matter. It is a voluntary attempt to resolve issues."

Swope said the slurry litigation suits "could potentially go on for years if we do not resolve this here."

Taylor County Judge Alan D. Moats said the West Virginia Supreme Court created "mass litigation panels" back in the mid-1980s.

"The number of people in these cases makes it very difficult for one just to handle it. ... It was assigned to the Mass Litigation Panel by Justice Robin Jean Davis last spring."

Moats said he wants "to resolve cases to everyone's agreement and advantage. Hopefully, these cases will be resolved this week."

If those efforts fail, the first trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 1.

Moats also told the plaintiffs at the Civic Center, "No judge can force you to settle your case."

After Swope and Moats spoke, the plaintiffs attended private mediation meetings closed to the public.

In the early afternoon, a dozen people who filed suits went to the Capitol and held a news conference organized by Stephanie Tyree, coordinator of the Sludge Safety Project -- a group formed by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Coal River Mountain Watch.

James Scott, 54, said, "There are children who are sick and cannot enjoy their lives. Some people in their 40s and 50s are confined to their homes. We are telling the Legislature, 'You need to do what the people want you to do. We will not tolerate this anymore.'

"Today, we don't know what diseases will hurt us most. We don't know if our hair will fall out. We are living in a toxic area. We were not aware of this for many years. We were always left in the dark."

Things got better in 2007, Scott said, when the city of Williamson began piping in clean water to homes in Rawl and nearby towns.

Delegate Michael N. Manypenny, D-Taylor, told the group at the Capitol, "I look forward to introducing legislation that will use new technology. That technology is already there."

If this week's mediation efforts fail, three other circuit judges on the panel would develop plans for a trial: Ohio County Judge James P. Mazzone, Raleigh County Judge John A. Hutchinson and Lincoln County Judge Jay M. Hoke.

In their lawsuits, current and former residents of the Mingo County towns claim they have suffered health problems including chronic gastrointestinal disorders, skin cancers and major organ cancers.

Many say they also suffered from developmental disorders from extensive exposure to lead and other toxins when they were children.

Coal sludge is created when coal is washed and processed before being shipped to power plants.

Coal sludge is often stored in huge refuse ponds above mining towns. Sometimes, coal companies pump sludge into old underground mines and other underground cavities, according to the Slurry Safety Project.

That sludge can travel underground, poisoning nearby rivers, streams and wells.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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