CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Hundreds are expected to arrive Monday morning at the Charleston Civic Center for a court-ordered mediation of claims they suffered health problems from polluted mine run-off water.
They all lived in the Mingo County towns of Rawl, Lick Creek, Merrimac and Sprigg, where they drank water they say was polluted by a coal slurry plant operated by Massey Energy beginning in the mid-1980s.
Lawsuits filed by current and former residents of those towns claim they 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.
The lawsuits claim that Rawl Sales and Processing, a Massey subsidiary, pumped more than 1.4 billion gallons of toxic slurry into old underground mine shafts, which ended up poisoning wells residents depended on until getting city water from the county seat of Williamson three years ago.
Massey, which has denied wrongdoing in the matter, did not respond to requests for comment.
A mass litigation panel, created by the West Virginia Supreme Court, ordered 556 claimants to appear at the mediation efforts in Charleston.
The panel, made up of five circuit judges, also ordered Massey Energy officials and representatives from the company's insurance providers to appear at the Civic Center for negotiations planned to end Wednesday.
Bruce Stanley, a lawyer representing the residents, said toxins in the coal slurry from Rawl Sales included arsenic, lead, manganese, barium, beryllium, selenium, aluminum, uranium, radium, iron and sulfates.
Dr. Charles Werntz, a West Virginia University Medical School professor of health sciences, said water in the coal towns was contaminated with a number of different metals and other chemicals.
"Slurry syndrome" caused skin rashes, boils, diarrhea and teeth problems, Werntz said.
"When people got fresh water from Williamson in 2007, those symptoms for the most part improved," he said. "One of the biggest victories for people in those communities was getting drinkable water."
Werntz said the "syndrome" also included more serious diseases, such as kidney failures and a variety of cancers.
"The number of people who had kidney failure was greater than one would expect to see otherwise," he said. "Some skin cancers rates were also higher than what one would normally expect. A variety of other conditions have also affected people."
Werntz said fresh water going into those Mingo County towns ended exposure to toxic chemicals.
"But the bad thing is that some of the diseases that come from those exposures might not be evident right away," he said.
Alice Ooten, who lived in Lick Creek, will be coming to Charleston.