It's Over! 630 Martin County residents settle coal sludge case; Kirk won't say amount

INEZ—Twenty eight months after the bottom collapsed in a 17-acre impoundment lake on Martin County Coal’s mine site, releasing an estimated 300 million gallons of coal slurry into and then out of an abandoned underground mine into Coldwater and Wolf Creek watersheds, a settlement has been reached among 630 plaintiffs and defendants Martin County Coal Corporation, Pocahontas Land Corporation and Massey Coal Corporation.

John Kirk, counsel for the plaintiffs, and Charles Baird and Bernard Perfunda, counsel for Martin County Coal and Massey, confirmed that the parties have settled the dispute and all pending claims, but declined to reveal the dollar amount of what is believed to be a multi-million dollar settlement.

“Out of consideration for our clients’ privacy and confidentiality, I can’t, of course, comment about the amounts of the settlement,” Kirk said, “but it’s good to get the case over with for our clients. I can say that the defendants have done the right and just thing.” Charles Baird agreed. “We agreed that we cannot reveal the amount paid to settle,” he said.

Glenn and Shirley Cornett’s farm at the head of Coldwater and Roy and Judy Tiller’s home were among the most damaged properties. “It’s not like getting my farmland back,” Glenn Cornette said, “but it’s good to get the case over with. John did right by us and we’re grateful to him. It’s a blessing to have a lawyer like him.”

Roy Tiller is a retired coal miner who worked at Martin County Coal. “I waited one year before I went to see John,” he said. “I hoped that the company would come to me and straighten things out without court and I felt bad when it didn’t. Now, I feel better about them because now they have done the right thing. Our family is very grateful and thankful to the Kirk Law Firm and to John Kirk.”

The lake rupture, which occurred on October 11, 2000, was by all accounts an unprecedented ecological disaster. The Valdez oil spill in Alaska, by contrast, released 5 million gallons of oil into the sea. The slurry or sludge—a gooey dark residue which was washed off raw coal and deposited into the lake—dropped through the bottom of the lakebed into a worked out mined and escaped from the mine through sealed openings—called drift mouths—into the two streams.

According to court pleadings, the rupture occurred because the distance between the bottom of the lake and the abandoned mine was less than 20 feet. The sludge slowly moved downstream wiping out aquatic life in the streams, according to state Department of Fish and Wildlife citations, and covering adjacent lands, depositing as mush as eight feet in some places.

The company’s response was rapid. Cleanup and remediation crews swung into action within hours of the rupture and continued working around the clock for several weeks, reportedly at a cost of $25 million. Martin County Coal paid $3.5 million in fines to the State of Kentucky plus $225,000 to the State Fish and Wildlife Service. Massey eventually paid $20 million in federal fines and another $10 million to prevent future occurrences.

“This whole thing has truly been a horrible nightmare for everyone involved,” Kirk said, “a nightmare for the property owners, for other county residents, for the Martin County government, and also for the companies.”

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