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Originally published Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 3:00 PM


Ailing W.Va. towns with bad water sue over slurry

Maria Lambert says she never had clear, odorless, tasteless water. Sometimes it felt greasy or smelled of rotten eggs. But the day a blast from a nearby strip mine shook her southern West Virginia home, it got worse.

Associated Press Writer


Maria Lambert says she never had clear, odorless, tasteless water. Sometimes it felt greasy or smelled of rotten eggs. But the day a blast from a nearby strip mine shook her southern West Virginia home, it got worse.

"Immediately, there was slime that ran through the ice maker. It just looked like orange Jell-O," Lambert recalls. "It wasn't gobs, but if you would stick your glass under the spigot to get some water, you'd see it was there."

Now, she and 250 people with orange and black water in their taps, tubs and toilets are suing eight coal companies they believe poisoned their wells by pumping mine wastes into former underground mines.

The lawsuit filed recently in Boone County Circuit Court claims decades of surface and underground mining activities near the communities of Prenter and Seth fractured the geologic strata that had contained the slurry, a byproduct of cleaning the coal. It claims the network of cracks created a pathway for the slurry to contaminate the aquifer.

An environmental consultant hired by the plaintiffs says "a very toxic and pungent" hydrogen sulfide gas was evident in every home, while every water sample had apparent odor and discoloration. Testing revealed varying levels of arsenic, lead, iron, manganese and sulfides, according the report the consultant filed with the court.

"There can be no doubt that water coming from the taps in Prenter and Seth is a toxic cocktail," the plaintiffs argue. "These toxic substances can be traced back to defendants' coal slurry operations."

But the state Department of Environmental Protection, which permits and monitors coal slurry injection sites, disagrees.

"We studied specifically the possibility the slurry injection had migrated into the water, and there's not a geologic connection between where it was stored and where their problem is," DEP Director Randy Huffman told The Associated Press in a recent phone interview. "The injection site in Prenter is not the source of their problems."

Slurry is created when coal is washed with water and chemicals to separate clay, rock and other impurities that keep the carbon from burning efficiently. Injecting it underground into defunct mines is one of the ways coal operators can legally dispose of the waste.

The lawsuit targets Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy and four subsidiaries, Omar Mining Co., Independence Coal Co., Elk Run Co. Inc. and Black Castle Mining Co.; Missouri-based Peabody Energy and former subsidiary Pine Ridge Coal Co.; and West Virginia's Federal Coal Co., which owns the land.

Massey has requested evidence of the alleged contamination but has not yet heard from the plaintiffs' lawyer, spokesman Jeff Gillenwater said Tuesday. A Peabody spokeswoman said its West Virginia assets have been sold to Patriot Coal, and Peabody will seek dismissal. Neither Patriot nor Federal Coal returned phone messages Tuesday.

The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, and a court-administered medical monitoring program for people like Lambert, who has suffered gallbladder problems and intestinal bleeding during her 48 years in Prenter.


Lambert didn't have $400 to hire a lawyer after that 2003 blast that shook her home. And she was raised in family that trusted few people and seldom challenged authority.

The thinking was, "You just live 'til you die, and if you die young, it's just the way it was supposed to be," she said. "It's not because you're being poisoned."

In 2007, Lambert went to a gathering of neighbors she'd never met, many holding jars of foul water. Afterward, a community organizer asked if she'd known anyone with cancer.

"I started writing, and it was like I was throwing up," she said. "I ended up with 12 pages, in 15 or 20 years, of names of people I'd known who were sick or died of cancer. ... It's just an everyday occurrence here."

The plaintiffs want the coal companies to fund periodic health screenings to detect and diagnose illness.

West Virginia case law requires they prove "significant exposure to a proven hazardous substance," that they face a higher risk of contracting a "serious latent disease" and that medical monitoring is "reasonably necessary."

The residents also want the coal companies to pay for both temporary and permanent water supplies.

Ben Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University who tested 10 of the 250 wells, found antimony, lead, iron, manganese, barium, aluminum and other toxins. The levels varied, and not all samples exceeded drinking water standards.

"The community has bad water," Stout said. "Not only should they not drink it, but community-wide, they shouldn't bathe in it, either. You certainly don't want to expose your children to water like that."

Stout can't say with certainty if slurry is to blame.

"We have to be 95 percent certain in the scientific realm, and when you've got all these mining operations going on above and below, and underground injection of coal slurry, it's really difficult to tease that apart and point blame at any one specific thing."

To be sure, he says, more testing and more samples are needed.

Though public water lines have been promised to Prenter, they are months from reality. For now, people rely on a pay station set up at a church, where they can haul water home. Others rely on free fill-ups of the donated, 50-gallon barrels they keep at their homes.


On the Web:

Prenter Water Fund:

W.Va. Department of Environmental Protection:

Massey Energy Co.:

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