COAL:

Violations pile up at mines owned by billionaire James Justice II

This story was updated July 25.

Coal mines owned by billionaire James Justice II have been cited for more than 250 environmental violations in five states with unpaid penalties worth about $2 million, according to sources and records obtained by Greenwire.

Violation notices -- including many cessation orders -- from the federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM) and state regulators have been issued for Justice mines in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, records show.

Justice, a coal baron whose net worth is estimated by Forbes at $1.6 billion, also owns West Virginia's storied Greenbrier Resort. He sold many of his mines in 2009 to Russian steel and mining giant Mechel OAO. "The coal business is terrible," Justice told the Associated Press last year. "It's just terrible, and we're doing everything in our power to stay open."

Justice’s mines are under James C Justice Companies Inc., a company he created to expand a business he inherited from his father. A recent biography of Justice, a graduate of Marshall University and West Virginia resident, said he headed 47 different entities, including some related to farming.

Greenwire has reached out to Justice offices in Virginia and West Virginia. Messages were not returned by press time.

OSM works with states to police the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), the nation's top strip-mining law whose provisions are aimed at protecting streams and overseeing reclamation. The federal government oversees the SMCRA in Tennessee, which doesn't have its own regulatory program.

Last month, Kentucky National Resources Commissioner Steve Hohmann sent Justice executives a stern letter, suspending various permits because of ongoing SMCRA violations.

"I regret taking this action," Hohmann wrote. "I am well aware that many Justice Company employees will be adversely affected by this action through no fault of their own."

He added, "For the past two and a half years, your company has allowed these problems to continue, languish and multiply to the point that the department is left with no recourse other than to take these actions."

Hohmann's June letter followed one in April that accused several Justice-affiliated mining operations of failing to report water quality data and other problems.

"Although I acknowledge you have made progress within the 60-day period to abate certain on ground violations, I find that significant problems remain," he wrote.

Documents show Justice companies have been working toward compliance and suggested paying fines at a later date. But Hohmann said, "The current amount of penalties is so overwhelming that it must be addressed now."

In Tennessee the Sierra Club and the Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment threatened to sue three coal-mining companies owned by Justice for failing to file pollution dumping records in violation of the Clean Water Act and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

The groups also sued one of those companies, S&H Mining, over wastewater releases in U.S. District Court for Tennessee's Eastern District.

"The violations at the S&H mine site underscore how important it is that the public be aware of these corporate violations. Justice and his firms have a legal responsibility to let the people near these mines know the amount and type of pollution they're facing. It's time for Justice's companies to do what the law requires and make that information public," said Sierra Club volunteer Axel Ringe.

The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy this year denied Justice's A&G Coal Corp. a strip-mining permit for its Ison Rock Ridge project in southwestern Virginia because of outstanding violations and failing to post the necessary fees and bonding.

And earlier this month the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit upheld a lower court ruling against A&G's discharges of the chemical element selenium.

Tom Clarke, CEO of a Roanoke, Va.-based public health group called Kissito, said in an interview that media outlets have rebuffed his attempts to publicize Justice's violations. He said his plan for a billboard that would call Justice "America's #1 violator of mining laws" was rejected.

The top concern for Clarke, environmental groups and states is Justice mines going under and required bonds not being enough to complete reclamation activities.

"Justice is such a bad actor, and nobody seems willing to take him on," Clarke said, adding that he's not against coal-fired power and tries to work with coal companies on compliance.

Regarding one of the lawsuits, Tennessee attorney Louis Crossley said, "At this time, it is S&H's intention to defend the claims in the suit vigorously."

Justice is a frequent campaign donor to both Democrats and Republicans, according to a review of Federal Election Commission records. Last year, for example, he gave Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) $2,500. In June, he gave Kentucky Democrats $10,000.

A review of Mine Safety and Health Administration records, which regulates mine safety issues as opposed to environmental concerns, lists numerous delinquent fines for violations at Justice company operations.

He's not without support in Appalachia.

"Sure, he's had some help from the state with tax credits and partnerships. Sure, some have raised questions about some of Justice's companies' practices, late payments, regulatory fines and the like," said an editorial in the Charleston Daily Mail.

"Yet, while many talk of diversifying the state's economy in the face of market and regulatory setbacks for the coal industry, Jim Justice and company are doing something about it. They are bringing investments and tourism dollars that are rarely, if ever, seen at that level in southern West Virginia."

Twitter: @ManuelQ | Email: mquinones@eenews.net

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