The panel of judges handling claims that Massey Energy Co. poisoned hundreds of southern West Virginia wells with coal slurry will start Aug. 1 by trying one case each from seven personal injury and property damage categories the court has created.
A scheduling order filed by Ohio County Circuit Judge James Mazzone, head of the mass litigation panel hearing the cases, instructs both the plaintiffs and Virginia-based Massey to choose two cases from each category by April 1. The three judges will then winnow the 14 proposed cases to seven and try them together Aug. 1 in Wheeling, in what could be the first of a series of trials.
The seven categories, all of which include property damage claims, break the plaintiffs down by illness: cancer or renal failure; cognitive impairment such as attention-deficit disorder; colon or kidney problems; leukemia, spina bifida or pancreatitis; cysts, boils or internal ulcers; gallbladder problems; and chronic diarrhea, rashes or other so-called “sentinel symptoms” of exposure to contaminated water.
More than 700 current and former residents of Rawl, Lick Creek, Sprigg and Merrimac claim Massey and a subsidiary, Rawl Sales & Processing, ruined their water supplies by pumping 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry into worked-out underground mines between 1978 and 1987.
Slurry is a byproduct of washing coal to make it burn more cleanly. The residents say that’s what turned their well water varying shades of red, brown and black.
Although they are now mostly served by a public water system, the plaintiffs argue chronic exposure to metals and chemicals in the slurry are to blame for birth defects, developmental disabilities and a range of ailments.
Two attempts by judges who won’t be part of the August trial have failed to produce a settlement in the case.
Last month, however, Massey said it would create a medical monitoring fund to provide health screenings for hundreds of plaintiffs. That essentially makes the pending trial a series of personal injury and property damage cases.
Massey denies its operations harmed anyone.