Massey Energy Co. said Thursday it will create a medical monitoring fund to provide health screenings for hundreds of southern West Virginia residents suing the company over claims it poisoned their wells with coal slurry.
General Counsel Shane Harvey said the deal was reached even though a second mediation attempt in Charleston this week failed to settle other issues in the long-running lawsuit against Virginia-based Massey and a subsidiary, Rawl Sales & Processing.
Harvey said that while Massey is confident its operations didn't affect the plaintiffs' water supplies, "We hope that the medical monitoring program will go a long way toward easing the plaintiffs' concerns and leading to a fair and complete resolution of all issues."
He did not say how much Massey will spend on the fund.
Attorney Bruce Stanley said the medical monitoring plan will let his clients "learn the true extent of the human harm Massey's irresponsible environmental practices have inflicted upon the people of Rawl."
They will proceed with the rest of the case, he said, calling it "the ugly but vital business of holding Massey fully accountable" for harm already inflicted.
More than 700 current and former residents of Rawl, Lick Creek, Sprigg and Merrimac claim Massey and Rawl contaminated their water supplies by pumping 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry into worked-out underground mines between 1978 and 1987.
Slurry is a byproduct of washing coal to make it burn more cleanly. The residents say that's what turned their well water varying shades of red, brown and black.
Although they are now mostly served by a public water system, the plaintiffs argue chronic exposure to metals and chemicals in the slurry are to blame for birth defects, developmental disabilities and a range of ailments including cancer.
For decades, coal companies in Appalachia have injected slurry into worked-out mines as a cheap alternative to dams and other systems that can safely store or treat it. The industry claims underground injection is safe, but critics say slurry migrates through natural and man-made cracks in the earth.
Although an initial mediation attempt failed to settle the lawsuit last fall, judges Alan Moats and Derek Swope summoned both sides to a second attempt Tuesday and Wednesday.
The two judges are part of a five-member mass litigation panel. They're trying to work out the dispute while three other judges simultaneously prepare for a trial set to begin Aug. 1.
Alpha Natural Resources, based in Abingdon, Va., is currently trying to buy Massey for $7.1 billion. The deal is expected to close later this year, but several lawsuits have been filed to try to stop it.