Water Wars: West Virginia Coalfield Residents Sue Over Contaminated Water

Story by Sarah Vig
In Mingo County, W. Va., one of the largest coal-producing counties in the nation, 760 residents are preparing to face off against Big Coal. The group filed a class action suit against Massey Energy and its subsidiary, Rawl Sales & Processing, on claims of personal injury, wrongful death, property damage and nuisance. The hundreds of plaintiffs involved in the suit all suffered in various degrees from water contamination caused by coal slurry leakage from abandoned underground mine sites into the aquifers that supply their well water.
Coal slurry is the substance produced after the coal is “washed” during processing to remove clay, sulfur and other impurities. The slurry contains dissolved heavy metals as well as numerous chemicals. In several Appalachian states, including West Virginia, Alabama and Kentucky, regulators allow coal companies to inject the slurry into abandoned mines for storage, though, according to a March 22 Associated Press article, none of those states track how much slurry is being pumped underground.

Plaintiffs in the case believe that coal slurry leaked from the underground mine site above their homes into their aquifers, contaminating the wells they used for drinking and bathing water and leading to health problems from kidney disease to cancer.

The trial was rescheduled from its original date in mid-February under judge’s orders to allow the parties to mediate and attempt to resolve the situation without taking up the court’s time and resources. Unless a settlement is reached, however, the trial will commence on May 12 in Williamson, W. Va, and is expected to continue three to six months.

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