In a letter to the state Supreme Court, Judge Michael Thornsbury denied allegations of cronyism, insisted he ‘‘has absolutely no bias or prejudice against either side’’ and argued that granting the plaintiffs’ disqualification motion would cause substantial delay in a case set for trial in October.
‘‘The easiest course might be to voluntarily recuse, given the present environment, and to avoid the judicial responsibilities attendant with a very contentious matter,’’ Thornsbury wrote, ‘‘but it is not the right course, nor is it fair to any of the parties in this case.’’
Some 550 current and former residents of Rawl, Lick Creek, Sprigg and Merrimac are suing Rawl Sales & Processing, a subsidiary of Virginia-based Massey, for injecting an estimated 1.4 billion gallons of coal slurry into worked-out underground mines between 1978 and 1987. Slurry is the wastewater produced when coal is washed to help it burn more efficiently.
The lawsuit claims slurry seeped through cracks in the earth and into aquifers, poisoning wells, and that decades of exposure put the plaintiffs at risk of cancers and other health problems.
Massey has denied any wrongdoing and defended the practice as legal.
The plaintiffs accused Thornsbury of ‘‘cronyism at its worst,’’ claiming he has dined and socialized with Massey CEO Don Blankenship, and that he named a business partner and former campaign manager to oversee a medical monitoring fund both sides have agreed to create.
But Thornsbury denied having a friendship with Blankenship and said the other complaint is moot because Dr. Donovan Beckett declined the job running the health-screening program.
‘‘I have no political nor business ties with Mr. Blankenship, and social contact is limited to exchanging ordinary greetings,’’ the judge said. He called the claim that the two dined together a flimsy allegation by a questionable witness. His response contains affidavits from witnesses of his own.
‘‘I know Mr. Blankenship as well as many of the plaintiffs but do not have a close personal relationship with any of them,’’ he wrote.
Thornsbury also denied giving Massey preferential treatment, noting he compelled Blankenship to give a deposition in the case. Nor has Blankenship contributed to his election campaign, Thornsbury said, although lawyers on both sides of the case have done so.
The judge also denied accusations he had illegal out-of-court communications with Massey’s lawyers, deceived plaintiffs into waiving their right to seek legal fees and created ‘‘an atmosphere of bias’’ among courthouse staff.
Thornsbury said he’s presided over hundreds of cases involving Massey in 13 years, including some that had hundreds of plaintiffs and ultimately went to a jury. He also handled dozens of personal injury and wrongful death complaints against Massey ‘‘without any issue ever being raised.’’