MADISON –- At least 45 Seth and Prenter residents have filed complaints in Boone Circuit Court against eight coal companies, claiming they face serious health problems after their water supply was allegedly contaminated due to nearby mining operations.
The water quality has been deteriorating over the last few years, according to interviews Marshall University professor D. Scott Simonton conducted with area residents.
"All reported taste, appearance and odor changes over that period, as well as the smell of 'rotten eggs,'" he wrote in a letter to Roger A. Decanio, one of the attorneys for the residents. "In all instances I did smell hydrogen sulfide gas in the home and/or the water sample."
Simonton believes and the residents allege the problem began decades ago after coal companies began disposing coal slurry into injection wells, the residents allege.
From there, the coal slurry, which is created when coal is washed with water and chemicals to separate it from clay, rock and other substances, is moved to abandoned underground mines. The process is one legal way to dispose of waste.
However, the abandoned mines are known for their high permeability due to fractures, joints and beading planes.
In addition, the coal companies' mining operations have destabilized the strata and exposed a direct pathway for the slurry to move into and contaminate the water supply, the complaints allege.
And once there, the contaminants found in the slurry become part of the water residents use to drink, bathe and wash dishes, according to the complaints.
Indeed, studies done by Wheeling Jesuit University and Simonton conclude the water of both communities contained human toxins such as lead, arsenic, manganese, iron and sulfides, according to the complaints.
"There can be no doubt that water coming from the taps in Prenter and Seth is a toxic cocktail," an emergency motion for injunctive relief states.
In effect, residents who have been unknowingly drinking the contaminated water now face the possibility of developing serious health problems including cancer and must undergo periodic medical monitoring to screen for health threats, the suits state.
"The concentrations of known human carcinogens and toxins in the water supply of Seth/Prenter has increased the risk of disease and maladies including but not limited to kidney stone, kidney failure, gallbladder problems, cancer, gastrointestinal problems, skin lesions, and other ailments," the complaints say.
And because of the contaminated water supply, Seth and Prenter residents claim their property has been rendered worthless for resale.
Residents hope the courts will issue an order that would mandate the coal companies provide an emergency water supply within 24 hours and that residents be delivered water bottles to their home on a weekly basis until a safe and permanent water supply is available.
They are also requesting the courts command the coal companies pay for a medical monitoring program that involves a protocol of periodic cancer and disease screening.
"Early detection of cancer and other diseases and maladies improve the prospects for cure, treatment, prolongation of life and minimization of pain and disability," the suits state.
Right now, residents are getting water from either barrels purchased through donations or from Amazing Grace Fellowship Church at the cost of 25 cents for 125 gallons.
"However, they still have to use their well water to bathe, clean, wash their dishes, and clothes and for other domestic use, and will continue to do so until clean water is piped into their homes," an emergency motion states.
The eight coal companies named as defendants in the suit are Massey Energy, Omar Mining, Independence Coal, Elk Run Company, Black Castle Mining, Peabody Energy Corporation, Pine Ridge Coal Company and Federal Coal Company.
Residents allege the companies were negligent because they should have known of the increased risk of disease and the risk of damage to water supplies from their coal mining activities.
However, not everyone is convinced the contaminated water is the fault of the companies.
"We studied specifically the possibility the slurry injection had migrated into the water, and there's not a geologic connection between where it was store and where their problem is," Department of Environmental Protection Director Randy Huffman told the Associated Press. "The injection site in Prenter is not the source of their problems."
In addition to an emergency supply of clean drinking water and to the medical monitoring, Seth and Prenter residents are seeking compensation for damage to their property rights, damages for personal injury and unspecified punitive damages.
They are also asked the court order an abatement of any public nuisance found to exist on the properties, plus costs, attorneys' fees and other relief the court deems just.
They are represented by John E. Sutter and Decanio of The Sutter Law Firm in Charleston and by John R. Mitchell Sr. of Charleston.