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Mining firm offers $35m to settle

Hundreds claimed Massey poisoned drinking water

By Vicki Smith
Associated Press / August 10, 2011

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Massey Energy Co. has offered $35 million to settle a 7-year-old lawsuit with hundreds of southern West Virginia residents who say the mining company poisoned their drinking supplies with waste water called coal slurry.

The settlement proposed last month is confidential, but the Associated Press obtained a copy of a letter sent to the more than 500 plaintiffs whose cases were to be tried starting this month.

It says the $35 million is in addition to the $5 million that Massey and its subsidiary, Rawl Sales & Processing, had previously agreed to put into a medical monitoring fund.

Massey was bought earlier this year by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources, which did not immediately comment Monday. Massey was the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine, where 29 men died in a blast last year that was the deadliest US coal accident since 1970.

It is unclear exactly how much money each plaintiff will receive because the letter does not say how much their lawyers are seeking for fees and expenses.

The attorneys refused to comment, citing a gag order imposed on the settlement.

If the lawyers request and are granted the customary 33 percent, that could lower the payoffs to approximately $24 million.

That would average out to about $50,000 apiece, but the specific amounts will vary with each plaintiff. Some families experienced cancer or other serious illnesses, while others had deaths they blame on contaminated water. Others have yet to manifest any illness but believe they are at higher risk of becoming sick.

The letter says “an independent, neutral person’’ will help decide how the funds are allocated - a process used in other damage claim settlements across the country.

A hearing on the settlement and its distribution, including legal fees, is set for Sept. 29 at the Kanawha County Courthouse in Charleston.

The letter, dated Aug. 5, tells recipients the terms are not to be discussed with anyone other than fellow plaintiffs.

“Never forget that we stood and fought where others feared to tread, and you, the people of Rawl, Lick Creek, Merrimac, and Sprigg, focused the world’s attention on the true human cost of outlaw mining practices,’’ says the letter, signed by attorney Kevin Thompson.

The settlement was reached July 27, after a third attempt by two judges serving on the state’s Mass Litigation Panel. Three other judges had been simultaneously preparing to begin a series of trials Aug. 1.

Initially, some 700 people sued Massey, claiming it contaminated their aquifer and wells by pumping 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry into worked-out underground mines between 1978 and 1987.

Slurry is created when coal is washed to help it burn more cleanly. The residents say it seeped out of the old mine workings and into their aquifer, turning their well water varying shades of red, brown, and black, and causing ailments ranging from learning disabilities to cancer.

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