Ky. officials seek fines for Justice coal companies

Published 4:10 pm Tuesday, August 21, 2018

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — West Virginia Governor Jim Justice’s family coal companies are breaching their environmental responsibilities, according to Kentucky regulators, who are seeking millions in additional fines for surface mining areas that haven’t been cleaned up.

The Justice companies, which are now being run by Justice’s children, are no stranger to legal battles. They owe millions in property taxes to Kentucky counties, have been sued by unpaid vendors and recently settled tax disputes with counties in West Virginia.

The court battle is over a 2014 agreement Justice, before he became governor, made with Kentucky officials to restore the environment at some Appalachian mines.

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A lawyer for the Justice companies said Tuesday that the restoration at the mines is on schedule to be completed by April.

Federal law dictates that closed surface mines must be restored to resemble the land’s original shape and contours. But the work has not kept up with the agreement’s deadline, the state argued in a motion last week.

“The cabinet simply does not trust them to complete the remaining reclamation work,” the Aug. 17 motion said. “The Justice companies habitually blame others for their own bad debts and breached agreements.”

The cabinet had argued to end mediation talks with the Justice companies, but a Franklin County judge on Monday ordered the mediation to continue.

The Justice companies were originally assessed a $4.5 million penalty by Kentucky regulators, but the 2014 agreement lowered the fine to $1.5 million if the companies completed the cleanup by September of 2015.

A lawyer for the companies, Richard Getty, said several deadlines had been extended but state regulators have been difficult to work with.

He called the additional fine of nearly $3 million the state is seeking “draconian.”

“This is not like we had a deadline, and we never made it,” Getty said Tuesday. “We had a deadline that was by agreement pushed back.” Getty said the Justice companies have stayed in business mining coal and keeping workers employed while many other coal outfits have gone out of business.

State officials say there is about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) of surface mine area left to be reclaimed under the agreement.

“The Justice companies mined Kentucky coal and profited from it. But they have dragged their feet for years in meeting their obligations to restore the land,” John Mura, a spokesman for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet said in an email. Mura said the cabinet is seeking the nearly $3 million in fines and a completion of the restoration work.

Justice has a history of debt problems, including millions in property tax debts to some Appalachian counties in Kentucky. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported earlier this year that those debts in Kentucky counties total nearly $3 million. Earlier this month, Gov. Justice announced that his family-owned coal businesses have resolved all tax disputes with the state of West Virginia and its counties.

Justice has a fortune estimated at $1.9 billion by Forbes magazine from coal and agricultural interests. He was elected governor in 2016 as a Democrat but later changed his party affiliation to Republican.