Residents Suddenly Left Without Clean Water in Dispute with Mine Company

Feb 7, 2018

In May 2016, a jury found that a coal company owned by then-candidate for governor, Jim Justice, wasn’t responsible for contaminating the water wells of several Wyoming County residents. Still, an order requiring the firm to provide temporary fresh water stayed in place, and the water kept coming -- until recently, when it abruptly stopped. 

More than 30 families in the Cedar Creek community have accused the nearby surface mining operation, then run by Dynamic Energy Inc. and its parent company Mechel Bluestone Inc., of tainting their water, which the residents said contained arsenic, lead and other pollutants.

Despite the verdict, a judge kept a court order in place requiring the mine company to provide water to the families -- a directive the company violated when it stopped paying the vendor to deliver it. Residents said it stopped coming about a week before Christmas.

“Having it just cut off with no warning, not letting us be prepared, that was not right,” said Debbie Browning, who tapped back into her old well for bathing and washing clothes, despite the risks she cited. “I’m just thankful that I was able to use my water, even if it was iron and rust and all [the] brown stuff that’s in it. I’m just thankful I was fortunate enough to turn it back on.”

Scientists from the state Department of Environmental Protection found no correlation between the mine and the wells in question at trial. Kevin Thompson, an attorney for the families said the DEP geologist who testified “told the truth about the science [but] fudged the conclusion.”

The surface mine in question is currently run by CM Energy Operations LP, which is not affiliated with Mechel Bluestone. But the families are appealing the civil case against Mechel Bluestone, still owned by Justice, and asking it to resume paying for water delivery.

Check Bounces

Dynamic Energy and Mechel Bluestone spent about $1 million fulfilling the court order so far, but can no longer afford it, according to one of its attorneys, Billy Shelton. He told the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals last month that a check written to the water vendor bounced. While they await word on an appeal, the families’ attorneys took this matter to court. In a response filed Feb. 5, defense attorneys asked the court to dismiss the order, saying there is “no basis” to continue providing water when the mine company prevailed at trial.

The money spent so far “should reflect the good faith on the part of the [company] to comply with the water replacement orders and clearly establish to this court that if were not the current financial situation of the [company] they would still be complying with the water replacement costs,” the response said.

Each of the initial 16 families who sued were receiving 10, 5-gallon jugs and a tank of water each month since December 2014, paid for by the coal company. Ten more families signed on and began getting water in 2016.

Resident Jason Walker said he dips into the creek now and treats the water with pool chemicals to flush the toilets at his house and his mother’s place next door. He fills used water containers at the auto parts store where he works one of his two jobs and hauls them home. Depending on the weather, the drive to his uncle’s house where he showers can take up to 25 minutes.

“We do have water, it’s just we just can’t use it like you do like you would normally do on a normal daily basis. … If I’m working here at home, say changing my my own oil, I get dirty, I have to go 10 miles to take a bath,” he said.

His family has had water issues in the past, he said, but they had always been manageable. Then about four or five years ago -- around the time he said the coal company started blasting -- he could no longer treat the water with his usual methods, such as a salt filter.

Shelton said he couldn’t discuss a pending lawsuit, but noted “we always disputed the claims of the plaintiffs that the mining operation had affected their residential water supplies.

“This position was confirmed by the ladies and gentlemen who served on the Wyoming Circuit Court jury, who listened to all the testimony and evidence in the four-week trial and who unanimously decided the case in favor of the my clients,” he said in an email. “We expect those unanimous verdicts to be affirmed by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals very soon, putting an end to this matter.”

Still Supporting the Governor

Justice has failed for years to pay off various debts associated with his companies. He sold the mine in question to Russian mining and metals company Mechel OAO in 2009 and bought it back in 2015, after the initial water complaints. (CM Energy Operations took over ownership last year.) Justice didn’t respond to requests for comment through representatives. But he can count Browning and Walker among his supporters.

“As a governor, I think he’s doing a good job. I like him myself, I voted for the man,” Browning said. “So I’d appreciate it if he’d just take care of our water situation, you know? That’d be nice.”

Like many in the area, both families have connections to the mining industry.

“None of us in this lawsuit is against the coal mining company. I mean, that’s the way of life here in West Virginia,” Walker said. “Only thing we have a problem with is they’re damaging our resources to our natural water, and we want them to clean the mess up.”

Warren McGraw, the Wyoming County circuit judge who issued the court order, couldn’t be reached for comment. His order reinforced laws requiring mine companies that contaminate a residential water supply to provide temporary water and work toward a long-term solution. Thompson posited that the judge left the order unchanged after the trial “based on the evidence.”

“He kept it in place because he knows those people need water, plain and simple. … Gov. Justice thinks he’s above the law and he doesn’t have to follow this injunction," Thompson said.

Walker said he soon plans to drill a new well, hoping to find a new seam of water. His current well is full of sediment, and he has to replace the filter system that’s gone bad from being idle. But even then, he said, he’s taking a risk.

“Clear water might be contaminated, you just never know what you’re going to drink," Walker said.

Attorneys expect the Supreme Court to issue a response this week concerning the water delivery. A decision about the appeal is likely to come this spring.

This story has been updated to clarify the mine's current owner.

Molly Born is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.