A three-judge panel in Wheeling, West Virginia yesterday denied Massey Energy’s requests to dismiss a law suit alleging that the company contaminated multiple water supplies by dumping more than 1 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry into worked-out underground coal mines between 1978 and 1987. After a “contentious day-long hearing,” the judges denied requests to sanction the coal company for taking too long to produce evidence but allowed the trial to continue despite a detailed request for dismissal from the company.
More than 700 residents of four West Virginia towns allege that Massey and one of its subsidiaries dumped 1.4 billion gallons of slurry — the by-product of washing coal to make it “cleaner” — into the abandoned underground mines. The residents’ lead attorney, Van Bunch, claimed that Massey continued pumping the slurry underground even though the company knew it would leak into the water supply:
Bunch argues that when one underground void was full, Massey simply diverted the flow to another one until the slurry levels dropped — apparently migrating from one coal seam down into another.
“They knew the slurry would escape because it did on several occasions,” Bunch said, claiming the company failed to properly seal the mine voids to prevent that migration.
It was, he argued, “calculated, long-term methodology” to dispose of Massey’s waste, dupe regulators about the extent of its operations and endanger neighboring communities solely to save money.
While Massey claims to have stopped injecting the slurry in 1987, the residents allege that the practice may have continued for as many as two decades after that. The plaintiffs also claim that, in addition to contaminated water supplies, constant exposure to toxic chemicals in the slurry is to blame for birth defects, developmental disabilities, and other illnesses. The common contaminants in coal slurry have been linked to multiple health problems — including birth defects, cancer, and respiratory illnesses.
Massey, which was sold to Alpha Natural Resources earlier this year, claims that the company neither misled regulators nor harmed nearby residents. The company, however, has a history of bemoaning Mining Health and Safety Administration (MSHA) regulations and covering up health and safety violations, actions that likely played a part in the deadly Upper Big Branch mine explosion in April 2010.
Massey could, however, still get out of the lawsuit. Judges are set to rule today whether it, as the parent company, can be held liable for the actions of its subsidiary. Massey claims Rawl Sales & Processing, was acting as an independent company. The trial is set to begin Aug. 1.