A $35 million settlement between Massey Energy and some 600 southern West Virginia residents who blamed the mining company for poisoning their wells with coal slurry finally has court approval.
Ohio County Circuit Judge James Mazzone signed an order declaring the deal reached July 27 "fair, just and reasonable under the circumstances." Mazzone headed a three-judge Mass Litigation Panel that had been set to try the 7-year-old case against Massey and its Rawl Sales & Processing subsidiary.
Both companies were absorbed in June by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources. Under the deal, they admit no wrongdoing.
The order signed Wednesday directs Alpha Appalachia Holdings Inc. to pay up within 30 days. It also schedules a hearing for Dec. 16 to hear from any guardians for minors who have yet to appear and to hear a petition for approval of wrongful death settlements.
Lawyers for both sides remained under a gag order Thursday and could not comment.
The terms of the settlement were supposed to be confidential, but The Associated Press obtained a letter sent to the plaintiffs and reported its contents. The letter explained that Massey had offered $35 million besides the $5 million it had previously agreed to put into a fund to cover medical testing.
The settlement was reached after a marathon session with two judges who were mediating the case while the other three prepared for the trial.
Current and former residents of Rawl, Lick Creek, Merrimac and Sprigg had accused Massey of contaminating their aquifer and wells by pumping 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry into worked-out underground mines between 1978 and 1987.
Slurry is created when coal is washed to help it burn more cleanly. The residents say it seeped out of the old mine workings and into their aquifer, turning their well water varying shades of red, brown and black, and causing ailments ranging from learning disabilities to cancer.
The plaintiffs are now mostly served by a public water system but believe chronic exposure to metals and chemicals are to blame for birth defects and other health problems.
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 leaches into water tables through natural and man-made cracks in the earth.