This story was co-published with Mountain State Spotlight, a new nonprofit newsroom covering West Virginia.
A coal company owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice pledged to stop violating water pollution rules at a large strip-mining site in the state, according to a settlement filed Thursday in federal court with local and national environmental groups.
By agreeing to come into compliance within a year, Justice’s Bluestone Coal Corp. will avoid the harshest financial penalties that could have been levied — the maximum potential federal fines were nearly $170 million.
The company agreed to pay $30,000 in new penalties, and the settlement document noted that it had already paid $414,500 in water pollution fines for violations at the same mine site, under the terms of a 2016 deal the Justice family’s coal operations made with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The new settlement, which needs court approval, resolves a suit filed by the Sierra Club and other groups in August 2019, alleging excess discharges of selenium, which can be toxic to fish and other aquatic life, at Bluestone’s Red Fox Mine.
As part of the deal, Bluestone also will pay $270,000 to the West Virginia Land Trust, a conservation group. The money will be used to buy land for a newly proposed trail along the Tug Fork River in southern West Virginia, to provide local residents with new economic and recreational opportunities.
“This proposed settlement will hold the company to account for its selenium pollution and helps fund an environmental project that benefits the Tug River,” said Karan Ireland, the West Virginia Sierra Club’s senior campaign representative.
A lawyer for Bluestone Coal had no immediate comment on the settlement, which was signed by the governor’s son, Jay Justice, who is also the company’s president.
Justice, a billionaire whom Forbes has labeled the richest person in the state, owns a vast array of businesses, including coal mines, resort hotels and agricultural interests, many of them regulated by state agencies that report to him. An investigation this year by ProPublica found that the governor’s companies have accumulated more than $140 million in judgments and settlements in cases brought by vendors and other businesses and government entities over unpaid bills. (When asked about such cases, the governor and his representatives have always said that his companies always eventually pay their bills.)
In the case settled Thursday, Justice’s company benefited from the actions taken by the state Department of Environmental Protection, whose secretary he appointed. Though the state wasn’t a party to the lawsuit, the WVDEP just weeks before a potential trial agreed to a separate deal to allow Bluestone to pay $125,000 in penalties and also relaxed the selenium limits at three of the four outfalls involved in the case.
“Based on the prior agreements with EPA and WVDEP, and on actions WVDEP has taken to modify the terms of the permit, we do not think the judge would have ordered Bluestone to pay penalties higher than what we secured through the settlement,” said Pablo Willis, a Sierra Club spokesman.
The settlement document, filed in U.S. District Court in Bluefield, West Virginia, said only that “the parties acknowledge that there is significant disagreement concerning the size of a monetary penalty.” It added that “to obtain resolution of this litigation without the need to incur further costs and expenses,” Bluestone Coal agreed to pay a penalty the company “believes is fair, just, and reasonable under the totality of circumstances.”
The last fight over the governor’s coal mines came to a head in 2016, when, weeks before Justice won his first term as governor, his company agreed to pay a $900,000 fine for past violations, penalties for future violations and millions for new pollution control measures. The deal resolved more than 23,000 water pollution violations between 2009 and 2014 by Justice mines in West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama.
While Justice’s adult children have day-to-day control over the family’s business operations, the governor continues to guide the empire. Justice has repeatedly said that his role as governor poses no conflict, and that he wants nothing from the state for his businesses or his family. He was reelected to a second term in November.