CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Austin Caperton, a longtime coal executive and cousin of former Gov. Gaston Caperton, has been named the new secretary for the Department of Environmental Protection in Jim Justice’s administration.
In the announcement, both Caperton and Justice issued statements about balancing the need to protect the environment with the needs of businesses in West Virginia.
“Austin Caperton has the management experience to make the West Virginia DEP run efficiently,” Justice stated in his transition team’s announcement.
“Austin understands the energy sector of our state, and he will strike a balance between protecting our environment and getting rid of needless red tape that hurts job creation. He has the private sector experience I want to help me make state government operate with business-like accountability.”
Justice himself has significant coal holdings, inheriting his family’s mining business, Bluestone Coal Corp., selling some of it to the Russian company Mechel in 2009 before buying it back in 2015. Justice says he has turned over day-to-day operations of the coal holdings to his son Jay.
Earlier this fall, the federal Environmental Protection Agency reached a $6 million settlement with Justice’s Southern Coal Corp. and affiliates over pollution allegations. The settlement included $5 million for improvement measures and another $900,000 in penalties.
Caperton will replace Randy Huffman, who came up through the ranks at DEP before serving as secretary starting in 2008. Huffman announced last month that he would leave the agency to take a position at the Air National Guard.
For the past 27 years, Caperton has served as the president of Caperton Inc., a strategic business consulting company. The Justice administration’s announcement notes, “Caperton has experience working with companies to create jobs in the energy industry.”
Those experiences included executive positions with West Virginia coal operations, including A.T. Massey Coal Co. and its subsidiaries.
Caperton’s experience as a coal executive began in 1976 as assistant vice president of operations with Slab Fork Coal Company. By 1980, he served as president of Slab Creek, a position he held for three years. He became corporate counsel for Massey Coal Services, starting in 1983 and remained with various branches of Massey, including serving as vice president of development for one year until 1989.
“The Price of Justice: A True Story of Greed and Corruption,” a 2013 book about Massey Energy, briefly mentions the relationship between Caperton and Don Blankenship, who eventually became CEO of the company and who is now serving time in federal prison on a conspiracy charge following the fatal explosion at the company’s Upper Big Branch mine.
In that book, Blankenship is quoted as saying, “I knew Austin Caperton pretty well because he worked for quite a while at Massey and, at one time, was a candidate, I believe, to be president of Massey, back in the eighties.”
Caperton also has served as the director of the Beckley – Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce, United Bank WV, the West Virginia Council for Community & Economic Development and the vice chairman of the West Virginia Public Energy Authority.
He graduated with an engineering degree from Virginia Tech and a law degree from West Virginia University.
“This is a tremendous opportunity to serve the state I love so much,” Caperton stated in the announcement. “Just like Governor-elect Justice, and others in his cabinet, I’m walking away from a successful business career to play a part in turning around West Virginia. I look forward to working with the governor-elect to grow jobs while protecting our land, air, and water.”