CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A closed-door review of documents, prepared to inform nearly 600 West Virginia coalfield residents of a $35 million deal to settle their water pollution claims, may help identify who leaked settlement details to The Associated Press, a panel of judges assigned to the case said Tuesday.
Lawyers for those plaintiffs agreed to provide the three judges with a telephone script, letter and any other relevant documents, after lawyers for defendant Massey Energy Co. argued for sanctions because the leak violated the deal's confidentiality clause.
Both sides reached the review agreement after a Kanawha County hearing into the leak was cut short by Tuesday's 5.8-magnitude earthquake centered in neighboring Virginia. The tremor rattled windows and doors in the circa-1892 courtroom. The judges announced the agreement from the courthouse steps, where they gathered with lawyers and others when that building and others downtown were evacuated.
During that impromptu session, lawyers also agreed to the appointment of retired Kanawha County Circuit Judge Andrew MacQueen to oversee the distribution of the settlement proceeds.
The settlement resolves claims that slurry from washing coal contaminated area well water. About 1.4 billion gallons of the toxic fluid had been pumped into worked-out underground mines between 1978 and 1987 as a cheap way to store it.
Massey and its Rawl Sales & Processing subsidiary were sued seven years ago. Alpha Natural Resources bought Massey for $7.1 billion in June. With Massey and Rawl admitting no wrongdoing, the settlement was announced July 27 after a marathon mediation session.
The AP obtained a letter sent to the plaintiffs, and reported its contents Aug. 9. The letter explained that Massey had offered $35 million in addition to the $5 million it had previously agreed to put into a fund to cover medical testing. Dated Aug. 5, the letter also said in bold-face type, "The settlement amount and other terms are confidential and not to be discussed with anyone not a party to the case."