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Coal plant workers to get medical testing from settlement

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Nearly 25,000 current and former coal preparation plant workers would receive medical testing to detect diseases potentially linked to toxic chemical exposure under the proposed settlement of a decade-old court battle.

The proposed deal offers one-time medical examinations for preparation plant workers in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and also to an estimated 5,000 current or former wastewater treatment facility employees in West Virginia.

Chemtall Inc. and a half-dozen other companies agreed to the nearly $14 million settlement to resolve a series of class-action suits over exposure to chemicals used to separate solids from liquids during the processing of coal or the cleaning of municipal wastewater.

The deal received initial approval last month from Marshall County Circuit Judge David W. Hummel Jr.

"The settlement is preliminarily determined to be fair, reasonable and adequate," Hummel said in a three-page order issued Dec. 10.

Hummel set a hearing for May 1 to consider final approval of the deal. Public notices aimed at potential class members are scheduled for later this month. Lawyers for the workers and the companies issued a news release on Wednesday evening.

The litigation, which made three trips to the state Supreme Court, focused on the use of polyacrylamide, often called flocculant or "floc," in coal preparation plants and water treatment facilities.

Coal companies generate huge amounts of wastewater during the cleaning and processing of coal. This wastewater is thickened with the aid of flocculants, so that solids settle out and clarified water can be reused.

Polyacrylamide is one of the substances that is widely used to accelerate the settling of solids. Polyacrylamide is a polymer that is made by heating and cooking a monomer called acrylamide.

Some amount of acrylamide monomer is present in the polyacrylamide, though, and acrylamide can damage the nervous system and has also been linked to cancer.

Lawyers for the workers alleged that preparation plant employees were exposed to acrylamide through skin contact, inhalation and potentially ingestion. They alleged this exposure put the workers at a greater risk of serious illnesses.

"While carrying out their job duties, each coal preparation plant worker was repeatedly and significantly exposed, on a daily basis, to polyacrylamide with the residual acrylamide monomer manufactured by defendant chemical companies that was harmful and presented a significant degree of risk and strong probability of cancer, neurotoxicity, and genetic mutation from repeated exposures," the original lawsuit stated.

"These workers opened bags of polyacrylamide in powder form, dumped it into a hopper, mixed it into the recycled water and cleaned machinery and pipes that contained the polyacrylamide," the lawsuit stated. "Further, these workers were exposed in essentially the same manner to the liquid form of polyacrylamide with the exception of opening bags of the chemicals."

Chemtall and other defendants denied doing anything wrong, arguing more specifically that the plaintiffs' evidence of exposure amounts - based on modeling performed by an expert witness -- was not adequate to prove their case.

"Both sides have agreed to settle the case to avoid the cost and burdens associated with ongoing litigation," the news release issued Wednesday said.

Under the settlement, the defendants agreed to set up a $6.6 million medical monitoring program, and not to oppose the workers' lawyers petition for $4.65 million in fees and nearly $2 million for expenses.

Class members cannot exclude themselves from the settlement, but they do have the right to object to the terms. More information is available at the website www.FlocSettlement.com or by calling 1-877-738-3562. Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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