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No amount of money can compensate Russell Prince for the life of his 4-year-old daughter, but he and hundreds of families suing Massey Energy Co. traveled to Charleston on Monday in their continuing battle to hold the coal operator responsible for allegedly making them sick.
More than 700 current and former residents of Rawl, Lick Creek, Sprigg and Merrimac claim their water supply was contaminated after Massey and subsidiary Rawl Sales & Processing pumped 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry into worked-out underground mines.
They believe slurry, the byproduct of washing coal to make it burn more cleanly, then leached into their wells.
A panel of judges ordered them all to appear at the Charleston Civic Center for the start of a three-day settlement conference -- some traveling from Ohio and the Carolinas -- or risk being dropped from the long-running lawsuit.
Judges Alan Moats and Derek Swope are members of a five-judge mass litigation panel working to see if the case can be resolved through mediation. If a settlement is reached, a trial next summer will be averted. If not, the case will proceed with three other judges who are continuing to prepare.
Hundreds of people showed up in cars and buses, some carrying jars of red, orange and brown water they believe is tainted with the mystery chemical soup that is coal slurry.
"I just hope we get some satisfaction out of everything," said 73-year-old Dorothy Pope, hefting a Mason jar of orange murk.
Prince, 47, carried pictures of 4-year-old Chasety instead.
His daughter died in 1997 after 12 surgeries and countless hours of radiation and chemotherapy over 11 months. Prince said his surviving children have learning disabilities and ADHD. He has had three lung surgeries, and his wife has a list of ailments.
"There's not a doubt in my mind that it was caused by the water," he said. "I'm hurt. I'm angry over what's been done to my family."
But the lawsuit, he says, is not about money: "It's time to put a stop to what's going on with the chemicals in the water."
The judges began the three-day settlement conference by explaining to the plaintiffs how the process would work and ensuring each had given their attorneys written power to settle. The plaintiffs were then allowed to leave, and the judges began overseeing closed-door talks between their attorneys and lawyers for Virginia-based Massey and its insurance companies.
Swope apologized for any hardship the plaintiffs' meeting may have caused but called it "the best hope" for avoiding several more years of litigation.
"It is truly an unprecedented event for us to try to resolve this in this manner," Swope said.
Moats told the plaintiffs it was important for them to have a voice in the proceedings.
"It should be up to people and parties, not judges and juries, to decide what happens," he said.
The effort is the second major attempt to resolve the lawsuit.
In April 2009, a similar effort was undertaken in Williamson with partial success. Some residents reached settlements then, but still had to appear Monday.
Though most plaintiffs are now served by a public water system, they contend chronic exposure to metals and chemicals have increased their risk of developing cancers and other diseases. Their demands include a long-term medical monitoring program.
In the lawsuit, the residents claim Massey injected slurry into 1,000 acres of former underground mines. The slurry then migrated to their wells, eventually bubbling through their water systems "in varying degrees, from highly toxic to simply toxic," their complaints allege.
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 the slurry.
Massey has defended the practice in court documents, arguing mineral rights agreements dating to 1889 give it "the full right to take and use all water found on the premises."
The state Department of Environmental Protection has imposed a temporary ban on new injection sites. Earlier this year, a team of West Virginia University researchers advised lawmakers to start monitoring coal slurry, even though they could not conclusively demonstrate a hazard to public health.
But that's not good enough for many of the plaintiffs. A few dozen gathered at the state Capitol, urging legislators to ban the process for good.
James Scott said families in Mingo County fret daily about how the long-term exposure will manifest next.
"We do not know what disease is going to hit us next. We don't know if we're going to be able to walk. We don't know if our hair's going to come out," said the 54-year-old from Rawl.
Children are born with autism and developmental disabilities, he said, and too many die too young.
"It's not only destroying lives," he said, "it's taking lives."