WHEELING, W.Va. -- Hundreds of Southern West Virginia residents who claim Massey Energy Co. poisoned their wells and made them sick by pumping coal slurry underground will get their day in court next year -- and a chance to settle the case this fall.
A mass litigation panel handling the long-delayed lawsuit against Virginia-based Massey and subsidiary Rawl Sales & Processing set a trial date of Aug. 1, 2011, in Wheeling, warning the dozens of attorneys involved to clear their schedules for two months.
The five-judge panel also announced it will hold a mediation day Nov. 15 in Charleston, when two of the judges will try to broker a settlement that Massey, the plaintiffs and dozens of insurance company lawyers can live with.
"We're going to have a dual track here. We're not going to slow down," said Circuit Judge Alan Moats of Taylor County, who chairs the panel. "We're going to go full speed ahead in both directions."
While Moats and Judge Derek Swope of Mercer County will handle the mediation, Ohio County Circuit Judge James Mazzone will start preparing for trial with the help of Circuit Judges John Hutchinson of Raleigh County and Jay Hoke of Lincoln County.
The case originated in Mingo County and was set for trial last fall, but the West Virginia Supreme Court disqualified the judge who had been handling it over a conflict of interest. The case was then referred to another judge, who asked to be removed.
Earlier this year, the court assigned it to the mass litigation panel, judges who specialize in large, complex cases involving hundreds or thousands of plaintiffs.
At Friday's three-hour hearing to get the trial back on track, Mazzone denied more than 100 motions Massey had filed to dismiss cases by plaintiffs who failed to show up last year for a previous attempt at mediation. That keeps the case alive for not only 556 people who say they are already sick or disabled, but also for nearly 200 plaintiffs who want a medical monitoring program to watch for illnesses they believe they could develop.
The current and former residents of Rawl, Lick Creek, Sprigg and Merrimac are suing Massey and Rawl for injecting coal slurry into worked-out 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 defends the practice as legal. The lawsuit, however, claims slurry seeped through cracks in the earth into the groundwater, poisoning drinking wells. Residents say decades of exposure to water that often ran orange, red or black caused developmental problems, cancers and other health problems.