Hundreds to travel to Charleston for coal slurry lawsuit
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.
"I had two brain tumors," she said. "One was cut out. The other was treated with radiation. I also have stomach problems. You name it and I had it.
"Everybody in our area had wells," Ooten said. "It was just like any other water, or at least we thought it was. We didn't know that, further on down the line, it would be killing a lot of people."
Ooten, who now lives in Delbarton, had four children who drank well water at their Lick Creek home.
"Every one of my kids has health problems. My kids grew up with that water," she said.
Arthur Dingess Jr., Ooten's 46-year old son, said he has stomach, kidney and skin problems.
"But my problems don't compare to hers," he said.
Lick Creek resident David Joe Molette had open-heart surgery and a kidney transplant.
"My doctors said I was lucky to still be walking around," he said. "They put me on dialysis."
Molette said things improved "after we got city water three years ago."
"My legs still swell up from my medicine and I have diabetes now," he said. "I may have my kidneys taken out."
The lawsuits against Rawl Sales were filed in 2004 before Mingo County Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury.
Later, State Supreme Court Chief Justice Robin Davis required Thornsbury to recuse himself after learning Thornsbury represented Rawl Sales in earlier blasting litigation in the same areas where coal slurry allegedly contaminated wells.
If settlements cannot be reached in Charleston, the mass litigation panel will send the case to the Ohio County Circuit Court in Wheeling for a trial tentatively scheduled to begin in August.
In 2006, a court injunction required Massey Energy to provide drinking water to local residents until they gained access to clean drinking water from Williamson.
Water lines providing that clean water were completed in April 2007. With help from Rep. Nick Rahall and the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, both D-W.Va., those water lines were financed with money from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program.
Reach Paul J. Nyden at email@example.com or 304-348-5164.