WASHINGTON, D.C. — Coal companies owned by Greenbrier County businessman and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice will pay $5 million as a part of settlement with the federal government to cleanup water pollution issues at mining operations in five states including West Virginia.
The settlement, jointly announced Friday by the U.S. Department of Justice and federal Environmental Protection Agency, resolves Clean Water Act violations alleged by the regulators in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Virginia.
According to the DOJ and EPA, Justice’s Southern Coal Corporation and 26 affiliated mining companies will “make comprehensive upgrades to their coal mining and processing operations to prevent discharges of polluted wastewater from their mines in Appalachia.”
The improvement measures are estimated to cost $5 million. The companies will also pay a $900,000 civil penalty that will be divided between Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Virginia. West Virginia was not part part of the lawsuit against Justice’s companies. Only a small percentage of the violations happened at operations in the Mountain State.
In a news release from Southern Coal, company officials said the settlement is similar to those other coal companies have reached with the federal government. Southern has improved its compliance rate, company spokesman Tom Lusk said.
“After two years of working closely with the EPA we are pleased that an agreement has been reached, and Southern Coal will continue working with state and federal regulators to maintain our current 99.8 % compliance rate and implement additional best practices in environmental management to reach 100% compliance,” Lusk said. “When Southern Coal took over some of these struggling coal operations, we knew there were violations we would have to catch up on, and we are doing it. While the Obama administration has been tough on the our industry in these difficult times for coal, we are focused on striking a balance with full regulatory compliance and keeping our coal miners working.”
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection backed up the improvements by Southern in a statement released Friday:
“The West Virginia DEP, while initially involved in the lawsuit discussions related to Southern Coal, withdrew from those talks in March 2015 following a review of Southern Coal’s compliance record for its West Virginia operations. Through that review, we discovered that the company’s most recent noncompliance was a one-time self-reported manganese exceedance in July 2012. The DEP had issued three consent orders to West Virginia affiliates of Southern Coal in 2008 that involved $1.58 million in penalties. Following the resolution of those orders, Southern Coal’s compliance record greatly improved,” the statement said.
The announcement of the settlement comes a day after Justice received the official endorsement in his race for governor from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
“Jim Justice knows how to create jobs, he has a vision for growing the economy, and he will carry important work forward to get the job done. I am proud to stand behind him and behind the office that is deeply important to me and to all West Virginians,” Tomblin said a Justice fund raising event Thursday night in Charleston, according to a release from the Justice campaign.
Justice’s opponent, state Senate President and Republican gubernatorial nominee, Bill Cole downplayed the endorsement during an appearance Friday on MetroNews “Talkline.”
“Listen, I’d expect it. That’s the good ol’ boy network that’s run West Virginia for years and years and years,” Cole said. “I think voters are gonna look at that and say, ‘Okay, ya know what? It’s time for a change. It’s time for us to take control of our state back and move it in a positive direction.”
Justice said it was an honor to receive Tomblin’s endorsement.
“He’s always cared deeply about the future of our state and is a true public servant. This isn’t about political party; I want all West Virginians pulling the rope together to create jobs. What I’ve done to create jobs in coal, agriculture, and tourism I’ll do for our state,” Justice said in a release from his campaign.
Justice and Cole will take part in their first debate next Tuesday, Oct. 4, followed by a second debate a week later.
The settlement announced Friday includes the following improvement measures at the various mining sites:
–Implementing a company-wide, EPA-approved environmental management system.
–Maintaining a centralized data management system to track audit results, violations, water sampling data and compliance efforts.
–Constructing a public website for posting documents such as NPDES permits, discharge monitoring reports, water sampling data, effluent violation information, notices of violations and compliance orders.
–Conducting regular internal and independent third-party environmental audits and outlet inspections and undertaking necessary alterations or maintenance measures.
–Providing training for all employees whose responsibilities include environmental compliance and contractors hired to perform duties required by the consent decree.