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Coalfield families win case

A group of Boone County families has been awarded more than $500,000 to compensate them for property damaged by a mountaintop removal coal mine.Sharon and Ralph Toler and 40 other families should receive the money because of mine blasting that damaged their homes, according to a Boone County jury.The $517,000 verdict, handed down late last month, is believed the be the largest award in a strip mine blasting case to date, according to Charleston lawyer John Sutter, who represented the families.Jurors did not force Burco Resources Corp. or Wind River Resources Corp. to pay punitive damages or damages for the mine allegedly being a nuisance to residents.But Sutter said winning any damages in a case against a coal company was a victory, given the current backlash against environmentalists who want to curb mountaintop removal."Given the circumstances and atmosphere in Boone County and other coal counties, we were pleased with the general outcome," Sutter said. "The jury awarded almost 100 percent of the property damage claims."Sutter and a group of other lawyers have filed similar cases on behalf of about 20 Lincoln County residents and 15 Mingo County residents who live near mountaintop removal mines operated by Pen Coal and Magnet Coal."With the prevalence of mountaintop removal, everybody is trying to protect the environment, and no one is protecting the people," Sutter said Thursday."People are not just going to stand around and watch their homes be destroyed, so I think you will be seeing more suits."
Burco Resources and Wind River hold six surface mining permits covering nearly 2,500 acres in Boone County, according to state Division of Environmental Protection records. The companies, based in Big Stone Gap, Va., produced about 1.1 million tons of coal in 1997 at mountaintop removal operations near Bim, along Pond Fork southeast of Madison.In December 1996, the Tolers and 80 of their neighbors filed a complaint that alleged the mine had damaged their homes, harmed their health, and was a nuisance. About 30 of the residents settled their claims.Boone Circuit Judge E. Lee Schlaegel held a seven-week trial in February and March on the claims of the other 51 plaintiffs. The verdict was returned on March 26.Forty-one plaintiffs were awarded a total of $517,000, or an average of about $12,600 each, for blasting damage to their property.Coal company lawyer D.C. Offutt said Burco and Wind River had not made a decision on whether to appeal the verdict."We're obviously very disappointed with the verdict," Offutt said. "We think it primarily represented public perceptions about mountaintop removal mining, not the reality."
Offutt, who represents Pen Coal in the Lincoln County case, criticized Sutter and the other plaintiffs lawyers who filed the cases."They're trying to feed on this public sentiment against mountaintop mining," Offutt said. 
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.
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