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."