MORGANTOWN —While admitting to no wrongdoing, Massey energy settled a case brought by more than 700 people who claim the coal company poisoned their water supply.
Circuit Judge Alan Moats, who serves on West Virginia’s Mass Litigation Panel, said he and Judge Derek Swope worked with the lawyers until nearly 4 a.m. Wednesday to hammer out an agreement in Charleston. The financial terms will not be disclosed, but Moats said that as is typical in a settlement, Massey admits no wrongdoing.
“We’re pleased we were able to find an agreeable resolution for all parties,” said Rick Nida, spokesman for Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources. Alpha became involved in the case when it bought Massey for $7.1 billion in June and has been considering a deal that would satisfy both sides, he said.
“Hopefully, no other West Virginia community will ever again be subjected to such a blatant abuse of basic human needs,” said Bruce Stanley, an attorney for the plantiffs.
The settlement ends a seven-year-long legal battle between Massey, its subsidiary Rawl Sales and Processing, and the residents of Rawl, Sprigg, Merrimac and the surrounding communities.
The plaintiffs claimed the companies contaminated their aquifer and wells by pumping 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry into worked-out underground mines between 1978 and 1987.
Kevin Thompson, a lawyer for the Rawl residents, told the Daily News the settlement is the latest in a series of actions forcing Massey to take responsibility for contaminating the residents’ water.
“In 2006 they won an injunction banning Massey from injecting slurry in Mingo County,” Thompson explained. “Later in 2006 they won an injunction forcing Massey to provide temporary water. In 2007 they finally got a pipeline carrying city water. Earlier this year we secured a five million dollar fund for medical monitoring.”
Thompson said the case involved health issues such as for cancer, kidney stones, brain damage, constant diarrhea, cysts, rashes and wrongful death. He said the judges also resolved the claims involving property value.
The case would have been heard in a series of trials, with the first seven cases covering only 17 plaintiffs. That left hundreds more cases that would have tied up the courts for months.
Kevin Thompson said medical care provided by the settlement is essential to the well being of his clients.
“The most important feature of the settlement is the provision of catastrophic health care so that the people can afford to treat the cancer and kidney failures likely to be uncovered by the medical monitoring plan,” he said. “We had no choice but to recommend this settlement because the health care package is going to save the lives of people I have come to love. Too many people have died already.”
Rawl resident Donetta Blankenship, whose case would have been among the first tried, says she suffered life-threatening liver problems in 2005 and 2006 that she believes were caused by the tainted water. She’s since had medical treatment and now gets her water from a public system. Today, Blankenship says, she’s healthy.
“I’m thankful it’s over,” she said, adding that she hopes the residents’ victory sends a message to other communities facing battles with corporations like Massey.
“People can see that they don’t have to put up with it anymore,” said Blankenship, 44. “I want everybody all over the country to find out they don’t have to do that. They can fight and stick together. They can fight and win.”