WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) -- A three-judge panel refused Thursday to dismiss a lawsuit accusing Massey Energy of poisoning hundreds of southern West Virginia wells with coal slurry, but it denied a request to sanction the coal operator for taking years to produce maps of its underground injection sites and other evidence.
After a contentious daylong hearing in Wheeling, the judges began clearing the way for the trial, set to begin Aug. 1. They also laid out rules for that trial, ordering participants to stop talking to the media, denying video coverage of the proceedings and warning against signs, buttons, T-shirts and anything else that attempts to turn the Ohio County Circuit Court into a protest venue.
More than 700 current and former residents of Rawl, Lick Creek, Sprigg and Merrimac claim that Massey and a subsidiary, Rawl Sales & Processing, contaminated their water supplies by pumping 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry into worked-out underground mines between 1978 and 1987.
Slurry is created when coal is washed to help it burn more cleanly. The residents say it seeped out of the old mine workings and into their aquifer, turning their well water varying shades of red, brown and black, and causing a variety of ailments.
A final attempt to avert the trial is set for next week, when two other judges who serve on the state's Mass Litigation Panel will try to mediate a settlement in Charleston. Those judges were not part of Thursday's proceedings and won't participate in the trial, expected to last several months.
Massey is now owned by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources.
Massey attorneys laid out 10 reasons it believes the case should be dismissed, arguing the plaintiffs used flawed methods to sample wells, and claiming those samples showed the water was safe to drink. They also argued mineral rights gave Massey the right to use the groundwater as it saw fit, and that the plaintiffs waited too long to sue.
"This isn't a case of taking the water away,'' responded plaintiffs' attorney Van Bunch. "There's plenty of water. The problem is, it's dangerous water.''
He said the residents didn't know their mountain was full of slurry, that Massey had put it there, or that it was the slurry that was making them sick. Nor is it clear exactly when Massey stopped pumping slurry into the ground, he said.
Although the company claims it stopped in 1987, the plaintiffs contend it could have gone on for nearly two decades longer. They accused Massey of lying to regulators about what it was doing and say newly discovered evidence bolsters their theory.
The plaintiffs asked for sanctions against Massey, claiming it withheld maps, financial records and other evidence they requested nearly seven years ago until last month, when a new court order compelled them to search a mine map vault in Kentucky.