Justice coal companies hit back against federal government civil action

CHARLESTON — The coal companies owned by Gov. Jim Justice have been subject to a federal lawsuit, but the Justice companies are hitting back.

According to a press release from Justice’s Bluestone Energy Group, the governor’s coal operations are seeking a declaratory judgment in federal court against the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.

The Justice coal companies are asking the court to require the federal agency to live up to an agreement to settle various fines, penalties and reclamation fees.

“As a coal operator we have always prided ourselves on going above and beyond with respect to preserving the environment and doing our part to work with regulators to make sure that reclamation is done the right way and as soon as humanly possible,” said Jay Justice, president and CEO of the Justice Mining Entities. Jay, the son of Justice, has run the governor’s coal companies since Justice took office Jan. 16, 2017.

“We don’t want to have to go to court to get the government to do the right thing and live up to its end of the bargain, but we can’t sit back and let the government take advantage of our good-faith efforts to resolve this matter,” Jay said.

The filing alleges that the agency agreed to settle various fines and penalties with Justice’s coal companies in early April. But Justice coal company officials became skeptical of the agreement after the federal government filed suit against the companies earlier this month.

A request for comment from the Office of Surface Mining was not returned.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Virginia and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announced May 7 that they were filing a civil action against the 23 Justice-owned coal companies for $4.8 million in unpaid penalties. The 23 companies were issued 2,297 citations and civil penalties by federal mine inspectors between 2014 and 2019,

According to investigators, Justice’s companies didn’t pay the penalties and didn’t provide notice of intent to contest the penalties. The federal government is seeking $3.9 million in unpaid penalties, plus $821,386 in administrative costs and interest.

“We continue to hope for a global settlement agreement with the government, but after the incident with MSHA we need to protect the interests of our companies, our workers and the environment and make them live up to the deal we made,” Jay Justice said.

A news report last month by Ohio Valley ReSource, a project of multiple public radio stations, found that Justice’s mine penalty debt had doubled from 2016 to 2018, from $2.6 million to $4.3 million, the highest mine safety debt in the nation.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia issued a subpoena to the state Department of Revenue at the beginning of May for tax records of more than 97 businesses owned by Justice, as well as any records relating to meetings or dealings between the department and Justice company representatives.

Only two of Justice’s companies are in blind trust: his Glade Springs resort in Raleigh County, and the Wintergreen Resort in Virginia.

Son Jay controls the coal companies, while daughter Jill runs the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs.