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Justice-Owned Mines to Reopen, in the Midst of Kentucky Reclamation Lawsuit

Mark Olalde

Jay Justice, son of Jim Justice, governor of West Virginia, with whom he owns several mining companies, just announced the re-opening of four mines in Kentucky. The reopening announcement came with a promise of 150 new jobs, but an active lawsuit and a new report on overdue reclamation liabilities at Justice-owned mines suggest that the development could be a strategy to further delay Justice’s overdue reclamation responsibilities.

Troubled History of East Kentucky Coal Mines

Coal production is up 46% this year in Kentucky, and as a result, Jim Justice is planning to re-open four previously closed mines: Bevins Branch and Beech Creek mines in Pike County, the Bull Creek mine in Knott County and the Infinity mine in Harlan County.

The state of Kentucky settled a lawsuit with Justice in 2019 over delayed reclamation on the Infinity and Bevins Branch mines, among others owned by Justice family companies. Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet alleged in the lawsuit that Justice has not properly stabilized the old mine sites, leading to potentially dangerous outcomes for communities nearby.

After Justice passed the settlement’s agreed-upon reclamation deadline of June 2020, regulators had moved to revoke permits to Justice’s Kentucky mines, asking a judge to require the Justice family pay $3 million to the state in fines. Reclamation was to consist of stabilizing the landscape, eliminating highwalls, and monitoring water quality. As the Ohio Valley ReSource previously reported, these unreclaimed sites have triggered multiple landslides, damaging neighboring homes.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice.

Advocacy group Appalachian Voices recently released a report detailing the potential jobs that could come from reclaiming Justice’s mines. Willie Dodson, who authored the report, fears that this new development plays into a pattern of Justice-owned mines reneging on promises to stabilize and monitor the sites, further endangering residents of nearby communities.

Federal law requires coal companies to post bonds before mining. This money later goes to ensure the minelands are stabilized after the company has finished with them.

A Pattern of Avoiding Responsibility

“These companies’ pattern,” Dodson said, “is to ignore obligations until bond forfeiture or some other type of strict enforcement is imminent, and then strike a deal with regulators to buy themselves more time.”

According to the analysis, reclamation liabilities total $5 million dollars across the Kentucky mines that Justice owns. Dodson’s report estimates that completing that reclamation work would employ 220 to 460 workers for five years.

Jim Justice is the wealthiest person in West Virginia. Yet he — and companies he runs and owns with his family — have track records of unmet obligations that go far beyond just mine reclamation. A 2016 investigation by NPR and the Ohio Valley ReSource revealed c $15 million in unpaid taxes and fines. The largest part of this debt was owed to Kentucky, a total of $6.81 million. That investigation also showed Justice’s mines to have a higher-than-average rate of workplace injuries, and the most unpaid safety violations of any American coal operator.

According to a new investigation from Mountain State Spotlight and ProPublica, Justice has also paid little to nothing in federal taxes for years.

Justice and his affiliates maintain that they intend to meet all obligations, delayed as they may be. According to the Kentucky Herald-Leader, Justice has said in a letter to a state official that he believes he could reclaim the Bevins Branch mine by April 1, 2022, and the Bevins Branch mine by April 20. However, he missed previous reclamation deadlines set for the summer of 2020.

“Justice has just made some new promises,” Dodson said. “But the Justice companies have made countless promises that they have not honored over the years.”

The entrance to the Justice-owned mine in Tazewell County Virginia, where county officials seized equipment to force payment of back taxes.
Anna Boiko-Weyrauch
The entrance to the Justice-owned mine in Tazewell County Virginia, where county officials seized equipment to force payment of back taxes.

Looking Forward

Appalachian Voice’s analysis recommends that regulators enforce the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act more heavily, and specifically that they “revoke permits and forfeit bonds on long-idled Justice company coal mines.”

The report also recommends Congress supply supplemental funding to reclaim mines, so that reclamation is not as solely dependent on funds promised by coal company owners.

Justice has not yet set a date for hiring at the re-opened mines, but has promised that they will be hiring soon.

Katie Myers is covering economic transition in east Kentucky for the ReSource and partner station WMMT in Whitesburg, KY. She previously worked directly with communities in Kentucky and Tennessee on environmental issues, energy democracy, and the digital divide, and is a founding member of a community-owned rural ISP. She has also worked with the Black in Appalachia project of East Tennessee PBS. In her spare time, Katie likes to write stage plays, porch sit with friends, and get lost on mountain backroads. She has published work with Inside Appalachia, Scalawag Magazine, the Daily Yonder, and Belt Magazine, among others.
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