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West Virginia’s Coal Baron Governor Owes Millions in Fines – Mother Jones
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West Virginia’s Coal Baron Governor Owes Millions in Fines – Mother Jones

West Virginia’s Coal Baron Governor Owes Millions in Fines – Mother Jones



This story was first published by Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice used coal to propel himself into public office in the coal-friendly state, but a few hundred miles away his association with coal is not so positive. The state of Kentucky fined Jim Justice and his son-turned business partner $2.9 million earlier this month for failing to reclaim three Eastern Kentucky mines. This is a process which makes them environmentally safe for future development.

The proprietor of the Greenbrier Resort owns more than 50 coal mines and businesses and has faced fines before—along with community opposition—for failing to pay taxes and suppliers, inadequately implementing mine safety requirements, and ignoring court-ordered environmental remediation work. 

He joins other high-ranking elected representatives, such as Sen. Joe Manchin and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), who are in the business of passing climate legislation while having interests in the fossil fuel industry. Justice’s attorneys claim the missed deadline that prompted the most recent fine is not his fault;  the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible to safely get the reclamation work in time.

“It’s always been our intent to complete this work,” said Richard A. Getty, who represents the Justices, in a statement following the ruling. However, as the state made clear in its ruling, various deadlines had passed before COVID-19And at least one site had been left untouched since 2015.

According to a 2016 report, this latest fine brings to $15 million more the taxes and safety sanctions he owes state governments for his six coal mines in six states. NPR investigation. That analysis revealed Justice’s mines as a hotbed for workplace injuries, holding the most unpaid safety violations of any American-owned coal operator.

It also comes on the heels of a recent announcement that Justice’s company was attempting to acquire new permitsTo resume mining and reclamation work at four previously closed surface mines. The new fine, however, forces the company to be listed in a federal violator system that will prevent them from getting new permits or amending existing permits until the violations are cleared up—prohibiting the company from cashing in on a 50 percent rise in coal production in Kentucky this year. 

Willie Dodson, an organizer with the environmental labor organization, believes that the fine could also help to change the tide in improving safety and environmental practices in the region. Appalachian Voices. “Regulators have been giving these companies just second chance after second chance for too long,” Dodson told Grist. “It is clear now, that to stop these companies from trying to squeeze more money out these dying mines at the expense of the community and jobs, states need to start revoking permits and going after the full array of personal and corporate assets held by these billionaires.”

Not only will it ease the taxpayers’ burden by forcing the Justices to foot the bill, it’ll also create hundreds of jobs. Kentucky is one of the poorest states in America, with nearly a dozen counties having a poverty rate over 30 percent. This is nearly triple the national average.  An analysis by Appalachian Voices found that reclamation work at Justice’s mines alone would employ 220 to 460 workers for five years. A significant boost is expected to be forthcoming, thanks to the recent passing Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. According to Reclaiming Appalachia CoalitionNearly 3,000 jobs will be created by the $11.3 million allocated in the law for abandoned mine cleanup. The economic output of Appalachia will reach $7.45 trillion. 

The practice of leaving coal mines unreclaimed and abandoned isn’t unique to Justice’s operations. Today, the once-economically vibrant state is left with the remains of a dying industry: more that 20,000 abandoned coal mines. Appalachian Voices reports that approximately 55,000 acres of these abandoned mines are unreclaimed—meaning they did not go through an environmental remediation process—and another 139,000 acres are partially unreclaimed. 

“Companies like Justice’s have been breaking promises for years,” Dodson said. “The way forward is for the regulators to bring down the hammer and hire contractors to reclaim the mines and now they have the support to do so.”

The newly signed law could have rapid implications for the environment. Unreclaimed mines pose a serious threat to the environment and people who live close to them. Unreclaimed mines pose an enormous threat to both the environment as well as the people who live close to them. Mining alters the landscape, disturbs ecosystems and increases the chance of landslides. It also contaminates groundwater and soil with heavy metals and toxic chemicals. 

From 2016 to at least 2018, an unreclaimed mine in Pike County, Kentucky owned by Justice’s family, caused multiple flooding incidents, racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage, destroying homes, and depositing potentially hazardous materials from the mine in people’s yards, according to reporting from the public broadcasting collaborative Ohio Valley Resource.

Betty Short, then aged 81, fell and fractured her collarbone while outside her home in 2018, as a result a Justice mine-induced flooding. She told The Ohio Valley Resource continued to haunt her. “You’re really afraid to lay down and go to sleep at night,” she said in 2018. “It’s like a nightmare. You never know what’s going to happen next.” The mine, which was scheduled to be completely reclaimed by 2015, is still not reclaimed as of November 2021. 

Justice first inherited ownership of his coal operations following his father’s death in 1993. He sold a portion of his coal business to Mechel, a Russian company, for almost $600 million in 2009. After a huge drop in coal prices, he declared his candidacy to be governor in 2015. bought back his business for just $5 million—less than one percent of the earlier price. Justice was famously renamed Justice two years later. rejoined the Republican party at a Donald Trump rally reportedly to get in good with Trump, who favored the coal industry. 

From the very beginning, Dodson says, it has been evident that Justice’s agenda was to “squeeze as much money out of his mines by running roughshod over the regulations, externalizing out costs, and then just walking away.” 

It’s a process that is widely utilized across the region. Since coal production started its steady decline in Appalachia, beginning in the 1990s, businesses, like Justice’s, have followed a template to profit off of dying mines before abandoning them, often leaving them unreclaimed for years. Coal operators were allowed to reduce their losses due to historically poor relationships with regulators. short-changing workers’ pensionsignoring relatively expensive safety proceduresDelaying is also possible costly environmental remediation processes before ultimately declaring bankruptcy and sticking taxpayers with the bill. But the impact is felt most intensely on the “spectacularly sick and retired mine workers and their communities,” Carl Pope, the former Executive Director of the Sierra Club, wrote in 2016. 

The federal support may be stopped if the proper attention is paid to ensuring that environmental justice is balanced with economic opportunities and job opportunities. “For years, there has been no accountability,” Dodson said. “It has hurt the communities where I work and it’s hurting people that I care about.” 

“Now we can work towards taking over any of these mines where it’s appropriate and hiring people to reclaim them,” he added, “focusing our attention on the environmental impacts of mines and the community impacts of needing reclamation.


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