The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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June 11, 2012

350 taking coal slurry suit to trial

CHARLESTON — A lawsuit filed by hundreds of Boone County residents who blame coal companies for fouling their water supplies is headed to trial.

The case is being brought by about 350 residents against Massey Energy and subsidiaries now owned by Virginia’s Alpha Natural Resources. Jury selection is scheduled to begin Tuesday.

Other operators originally sued have agreed to confidential settlements but denied responsibility for the problems.  

Residents of Seth and Prenter say mining activities, including the underground injection of coal slurry, are to blame for discolored, foul-smelling well water and health problems.

The plaintiffs are now served by public water lines and no longer rely on their wells for consumption.

The lawsuit was one of two major coal-slurry actions brought in recent years by southern West Virginia residents who allege underground injection of coal preparation plant waste has contaminated their drinking water.

Slurry is the wastewater created at preparation plants by the cleaning of raw coal before shipping the fuel to the market. For decades, coal operators dumped the material in large above-ground impoundments or injected it underground, often into old mine voids.

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection officials have said they have not found a link between slurry disposal and contaminated water, but a review by West Virginia University researchers said the DEP had required inadequate monitoring over the years to allow any real conclusions.

In a weekend report by the Charleston Gazette (http://bit.ly/MlUkcN), attorneys for Mingo County residents said they’d discovered records indicating Massey Energy tried to cover up the extent of its underground pumping of coal-slurry waste.

The attorneys also filed court records that they said showed then-Massey CEO Don Blankenship personally pushed for the slurry injection to save $55,000 in waste-impoundment construction costs.

Erkan Esmer, a one-time engineering consultant for Massey at its Rawl Sales & Processing Co. operations, testified about Blankenship’s slurry injection decision in a legal deposition in the case,

“Well, I think Don thought that $55,000 was too much to spend and complained about that,” Esmer said in a sworn statement taken during the litigation.

A transcript of Esmer’s testimony during pre-trial investigation in the case is among previously unpublicized documents that were filed in the weeks before Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey in June 2011, settled the case brought by residents of the communities of Rawl, Lick Creek, Merrimac and Sprigg.

In the Rawl Sales case, lawyers for the residents argued that Massey chose slurry injection over impoundment disposal or the use of a dry “filter cake” waste disposal system.

“Either of these choices, both made by Mr. Blankenship, according to witness testimony, would have spared plaintiffs from years of exposure to the tainted water and the resulting suffering,” the residents’ lawyer wrote in one court filing.

Esmer testified that it would have cost an additional $55,000 to pull together additional rock and dirt for an impoundment, but that Blankenship rejected that expenditure.

Blankenship told lawyers in a separate sworn interview, taken on June 2, 2011, that he did not recall a dispute over that expenditure. “I find that hard to believe, but it’s possible,” Blankenship said. “I don’t know.”

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