Gov. Joe Manchin's chief of staff and the governor's in-house lawyer got an earful Thursday from Raleigh County residents about a coal preparation plant and slurry pond near an elementary school.
Larry Puccio, the governor's chief of staff, and Carte Goodwin, Manchin's general counsel, listened to the residents' complaints for about two hours.
Former preparation plant worker Jackie Browning said that chemicals used at the plant made him and other employees sick.
Activist Hillary Hosta said students at Marsh Fork Elementary School get coal dust on their shoes and clothes when they play in the school's grass playground.
Jack Spadaro, a former federal mine safety inspector, warned that the slurry pond's dam is leaking and could be a disaster waiting to happen.
Spadaro said that Massey Energy is adding to the dam by building on top of slurry that was previously dumped and has hardened. He said such a foundation is not stable and could cause the dam to collapse.
"If you haven't seen the photos of the Buffalo Creek disaster, I suggest you look at them, because that's exactly what happened at Buffalo Creek," Spadaro said.
In February 1972, a Pittston Coal slurry dam in Logan County collapsed, sending a wall of debris down Buffalo Creek hollow, killing 125 people.
Spadaro also noted that another Massey subsidiary, Martin County Coal, caused a huge slurry spill in eastern Kentucky in October 2000.
During Thursday's meeting, Puccio and Goodwin sat at the head of a conference table at the Capitol. Residents sat on one side, and heads of state environmental, mine safety and public health agencies on the other.
Puccio and Goodwin promised to continue to examine the issue. But they did not commit to any action - or to a timetable for making decisions on the matter.
Puccio said it would be "totally irresponsible" to make such pledges before the administration does a more detailed investigation.
"We can't do that," Puccio said. "We will start working on it, and we will work on it until we gather the information we need." He said Goodwin would be the governor's point man on the issue.
At the start of the meeting, Puccio said there was no time limit on the discussion. But after just less than two hours, he abruptly ended the meeting. Puccio said he had another appointment, and that another meeting was scheduled in the conference room.
Rock Creek resident Ed Wiley, whose granddaughter attends Marsh Fork Elementary School, said he needed an answer from the governor within a week.
"Let's see who the governor really is," Wiley said.
Wiley held up a large aerial photograph of the school, showing the adjacent coal preparation facility and the huge slurry impoundment just up the hollow.
"It doesn't take a bunch of studies," Wiley said. "We have the picture right there. We have a 2.8 billion-gallon slurry pond behind an elementary school."
Wiley prompted Thursday's meeting when he launched a sit-down protest Tuesday, agreeing to leave the Capitol grounds only after Manchin met with him and promised his administration would try to relocate the school.
But Thursday's meeting with various agency chiefs was to focus on how the facility was permitted and what regulators were doing to ensure the operation was not a health and safety threat.
After a June 21 meeting with residents, Manchin had promised to investigate those issues.
But nine days later, the state Department of Environmental Protection went ahead and approved new and renewed permits for the site.
The permits allowed Massey Energy's Goals Coal to continue to operate the slurry impoundment and to build a new coal silo 260 feet from the school building.
DEP officials say that silo is exempt from a ban on new mining operations within 300 feet of a school because a preparation plant at the site started up in 1975.
The original school building opened in 1968 and was expanded significantly in 1982, the first year the preparation plant was permitted under the 1977 federal strip mine law.
DEP Secretary Stephanie Timmermeyer attended Thursday's meeting, but did not speak, even to respond to harsh criticisms of her agency.
Greg Thomas, a Massey lobbyist, attended the meeting, but did not speak. Thomas sat with reporters, and did not identify himself as a Massey representative, even when Puccio asked if those sitting around the outside of the room were all media representatives.
After the meeting, Massey issued a news release that said the company "does not believe its attendance at today's meeting would have been constructive."
Neither Thomas nor Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater returned phone calls Thursday afternoon.
In its release, Massey said that "many of the individuals who have described themselves as spokespeople for the community do not in fact represent the teachers, parents and children at Marsh Fork Elementary.
"Instead, Massey Energy believes these individuals seek publicity for a radical, anti-mining agenda," Massey said. "These individuals have not been hesitant to spread false fears to further their agenda, and Massey Energy's presence at the meeting would have simply given these individuals a platform to create more controversy and spread more misinformation."
During the meeting, Vernon Haltom of the group Coal River Mountain Watch predicted that kind of criticism from Massey.
"At a public hearing a few weeks ago, I waved around a thick list of about 500 permit violations [at Massey operations] over the last five or six years," Haltom said. "If I had that kind of record, I'd be in prison."