MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Eighteen months ago, Christina Doyle packed up her two kids for an eight-hour journey to a West Virginia courthouse, hoping for some resolution to a lawsuit over water pollution she believes caused her daughter's learning disabilities and slow growth.
This weekend, the 32-year-old who now lives in South Carolina is doing it again. And so will hundreds of others who believe Virginia-based Massey Energy Co. and subsidiary Rawl Sales & Processing have poisoned their water wells with 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry.
The company has denied wrongdoing, though residents say the proof flows from their faucets as red, orange or black water. They say the chemicals in slurry have left them and their children with developmental disabilities, cancers and other maladies.
Since that hot day in Williamson, when Doyle and others packed a field house and a courthouse, the case has been handed from one judge to another. Now, a five-judge mass litigation panel has ordered 748 plaintiffs to appear Monday in Charleston for the start of a three-day meeting or risk being cut from the case.
"I think it is kind of unnecessary," says Doyle, who will make the trip from Andrews, S.C., with her 14-year-old daughter, Savannah, and 10-year-old son, Hunter.
"Hopefully they're prepared for the chaos that might ensue," she said, noting many families have children with disabilities like attention deficit disorder – which they believe were caused by the toxic water.
Plaintiffs' attorney Kevin Thompson says most of his clients will pile onto buses in Williamson before dawn and make the 90-minute trip to the Charleston Civic Center, despite what Thompson calls an obvious hardship on many elderly and ailing plaintiffs.
"The judges want to make sure the people of Rawl are serious about pursuing their claims, and they believe this is a way to test this," he says. "And yes, the people are very serious about their claims. They have jumped through flaming hoop after flaming hoop."
The current and former residents of Rawl, Lick Creek, Sprigg and Merrimac are suing Massey for injecting slurry into 1,000 acres of former underground mines between 1978 and 1987. Slurry is created when coal is washed to help it burn more efficiently.
Massey attorney Dan Stickler did not respond to several requests for comment from The Associated Press. The company 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."
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. The industry says the practice is safe, but critics contend slurry seeps through natural and manmade cracks, eventually contaminating groundwater.
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.
They also claim Massey drilled 40 more holes than it was permitted, pumping water out to relieve pressure and to make room for more waste. That waste came within feet of their homes, and the lawsuit says tests show the slurry "ripples and bubbles through the system in varying degrees, from highly toxic to simply toxic."
At an August hearing, the five-judge panel denied more than 100 Massey motions to dismiss the cases of those plaintiffs who didn't attend the previous mediation attempt.
That kept the lawsuit alive for not only 556 people who say they are already sick or disabled, but for nearly 200 additional plaintiffs who want a medical monitoring program.
"I think it's going to be either all or nothing," says Thompson. "Either everyone is going to trial, or no one is going to trial."
If a settlement is not reached during the three-day meeting, the case is scheduled to go to trial next summer.
All Christina Doyle wants is what's best for her daughter, whose monthly drugs and daily hormone injections would cost more than $3,000 without insurance. Savannah was born without a pituitary gland, which is in the brain and regulates the body's growth hormones.
The injections cause "horrible mood swings" that make a teenage girl's life even more difficult. Savannah struggles with homework and cannot have children, said Doyle, who was raised in Lick Creek and lived there while pregnant with her daughter.
Despite Savannah's problems, she made local news last year when she plunged into a pond to save a drowning 3-year-old neighbor.
Still, Doyle says she's long been told by specialists that genetics can't account for her daughter's poor health.
"I did not do drugs. I did everything right. I took prenatal vitamins," Doyle says. "I can't think of anything else it could have been but the water."