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A company studying whether coal mine blasting and underground slurry injection are to blame for polluted wells in Boone County has collected 40 samples and begun submitting raw data for analysis.
That's only 10 more samples than Triad Engineering had gathered as of late April, but Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said Wednesday the team is still expected to finish its study by year's end.
Cosco said two public hearings aimed at soliciting volunteers for the study didn't generate much interest.
"However, the Triad staff has had better success going door to door and asking property owners face to face," she said.
The DEP hired Triad to do a second investigation after its own study failed to identify a link between the slurry injection sites and bad wells in the communities of Seth and Prenter.
Slurry is the wastewater created when coal is washed to help it burn efficiently, and pumping it into worked-out mines is one of the ways companies can legally dispose of it. Though industry claims the practice is safe, critics say slurry leaches into water tables through natural and man-made cracks in the earth.
Triad is targeting homes along the Hopkins Fork of Big Coal River and tributaries of Hopkins Fork. It's also taking samples from mining operations, coal preparation plants, refuse areas, impoundments, underground mine pools and underground injection sites.
So far, Cosco said, Triad has gathered 22 samples from wells, seven from streams and 11 from mining-related sites.
"Our original target was 30 wells and 18 environmental samples," she said, "so we aren't that far off from the original objective."
In 2008, some 250 people in Boone County sued eight coal companies -- including Massey Energy and four of its subsidiaries -- for allegedly contaminating their water supplies.
Besides Massey, the case targeted Missouri-based Peabody Energy and its former subsidiary, Pine Ridge Coal Co., and West Virginia's Federal Coal Co.
The June sale of Massey to Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources has delayed investigators' ability to collect some of the final samples in Boone County, Cosco said, "but we are working through that."
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are now served by public water lines and don't have to rely on their wells.
They're seeking damages for those who believe foul-smelling, discolored water made them sick and a medical monitoring program for those who believe their exposure puts them at risk of illness.
The coal companies have denied responsibility. The case is headed for trial in October.
The lawsuit is similar to one that Massey Energy settled last week after seven years of fighting some 700 Mingo County residents who said wells had been poisoned. Terms of that settlement haven't been made public, but the deal was reached days before a trial was set to begin.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has long allowed states to use old mines as "backfill wells" for waste, documenting some 5,000 of them in 17 states when it last counted in 1999. The EPA said those include sites used to store sludge, ash, sand, cement and other materials, but it cannot identify wells by subcategories. That makes it impossible to know how many of the sites contain coal slurry.