U.S. Dep. of Justice files civil action against Gov. Justice’s son and 13 coal companies, Gov. Justice responds

Published: May. 31, 2023 at 12:04 PM EDT
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BLUEFIELD, W.Va. (WVVA) - The Justice Department announced today that they filed a civil action against James C. Justice III, W.Va. Governor Jim Justice’s son, and 13 coal companies he owns or operates.

The suit is seeking to collect unpaid civil penalties previously assessed by the Department of the Interior (DOI) Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), as well as Abandoned Mine Land (AML) reclamation fee and audit debts.

“Our environmental laws serve to protect communities against adverse effects of industrial activities including surface coal mining operations,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Through this suit, the Justice Department seeks to deliver accountability for defendants’ repeated violations of the law and to recover the penalties they owe as a result of those violations.”

“Over a five-year period, defendants engaged in over 130 violations of federal law, thereby posing health and safety risks to the public and the environment,” said U.S. Attorney Christopher R. Kavanaugh for the Western District of Virginia. “After given notice, they then failed to remedy those violations and were ordered over 50 times to cease mining activities until their violations were abated. Today, the filing of this complaint continues the process of holding defendants accountable for jeopardizing the health and safety of the public and our environment.”

Pursuant to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), when a permittee violates SMCRA or their applicable permit, OSMRE issues a notice of violation (NOV) for non-imminently dangerous violations. The NOV sets a deadline for abating the violation. If the permittee fails to abate the violation by the NOV’s deadline, OSMRE issues a cessation order to halt mining until the violation is abated. If the permittee still fails to abate the violation within 30 days of the cessation order, OSMRE can take certain actions, including assessing civil penalties. If the violation creates an imminent danger to the health or safety of the public, OSMRE issues a second type of cessation order, called an Imminent Harm Cessation Order (IHCO), in lieu of an NOV, which requires cessation of active mining until the violation is abated. Separately, a director, officer or agent of a corporate permittee can be subject to individual civil penalties for willfully and knowingly authorizing, ordering or carrying out a permit violation or failure to comply with certain OSMRE orders.

From 2018 to 2022, OSMRE cited the defendants for over 130 violations and issued the companies over 50 cessation orders. The underlying violations pose health and safety risks or threaten environmental harm. In addition, defendants failed to pay required AML fees, which fund the reclamation of coal mining sites abandoned or left in an inadequate reclamation status. According to today’s filing, the total amount of the penalties and AML fees, plus interest, penalties and administrative expenses, owed by the defendants is approximately $7.6 million.

Governor Jim Justice responded to the news of the suit during his administrated briefing on Wednesday saying, “When you receive news like this, it knocks your socks off.”

“From the standpoint of having real knowledge of this suit that’s filed, I don’t have that. I’m sure I’ll be briefed by my son who is going through all of that,” said Justice.

He added, " I’ve announced that as a Republican that I am running for the U.S. Senate, and the Biden Administration is aware of the fact that with a win from the U.S. Senate that we could very well flip the Senate.”

Justice goes on to say that this instance could be in regard to his Senate announcement and that the government is hoping that this will hinder a win for Justice.

He continues, “My son and my daughter and our companies and everything will always fulfill obligations. Every single one, and ask them at the end of the day, ‘Have we not done it and done it and done it?’”

“We’re a big target. We are all at stake right now. The entire U.S. Senate can be flipped, and that’s what I intend to help make happen. With all that being said, we are an even bigger target today,” Justice said.

He finished saying that they will always take care of their workers.

The Justice Senate Campaign also issued a statement regarding the suit.

It said, “Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, and the Democrats have seen the polls that show Jim Justice winning this race, and they’re panicking. So now the Biden Justice Department has decided to play politics. We will see a lot more of this as the Democrats work to help Alex Mooney because they know they can easily beat him.” - Roman Stauffer, Campaign Manager, Jim Justice for U.S. Senate.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Krista Consiglio Frith for the Western District of Virginia and Trial Attorneys Sally J. Sullivan and Clare Boronow of the Environment and Natural Resources Division are handling this matter.