Federal lawsuit filed over unpaid civil penalties by Justice companies; governor blames politics

The U.S. Department of Justice announced a civil filing over unpaid penalties by more than a dozen companies Gov. Jim Justice and his family.

The filing does not name Jim Justice, but it does name his son Jay and 13 coal companies under the family’s ownership. Since Jim Justice has been governor, he has said the coal companies are under Jay’s leadership.

The federal court filing aims to collect unpaid civil penalties on behalf of the Department of the Interior Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, as well as Abandoned Mine Land reclamation fee and audit debts.

Federal prosecutors with the Department of Justice act as an enforcement arm in such cases for other agencies of the federal government.

“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,” stated Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

From 2018 to 2022, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement cited the Justice companies for more than 130 violations and issued the companies more than 50 cessation orders. Federal officials say the violations pose health and safety risks or threaten environmental harm.

In addition, federal officials say the Justice coal companies failed to pay required Abandoned Mine Land 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 Justices is about $7.6 million.

“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,” stated 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.”

The filing names Jay Justice along with A&G Coal Corp., Bluestone Coal Corp., Bluestone Oil Corp., Chestnut Land Holdings LLC, Dynamic Energy LLC, Frontier Coal Co., Justice Energy Co., Kentucky Fuel Corp., National Coal LLC, Pay Car Mining, Premium Coal Company, S and H Mining and Tams Management.

Jim Justice, a two-term Republican governor, has dozens of business holdings listed on his annual state ethics disclosures. The governor has not placed most of his family’s holdings in a blind trust but has repeatedly said the responsibility of running the businesses has been passed on to Jay and adult daughter Jill Justice.

For many years, Justice was described as West Virginia’s only billionaire, but Forbes downgraded him after 2021 debt disputes.

Justice has announced a high-profile campaign for U.S. Senate.

During a wide-ranging briefing today, Governor Justice again said he does not control day-to-day operations of the coal companies. “From the standpoint of having real details of the knowledge of this suit that’s filed, I don’t have that,” Justice said.

The governor went on to point toward political motivation because of his U.S. Senate run.

“The Biden administration is aware of the fact that with a win for the U.S. Senate, and everything, we could very well flip the Senate. You know, government agencies can sometimes surely react, and this could be something in regard to that.

“But with all that being said — as I’ve said over and over, and you’ve seen it a thousand, million times — when something comes up and someone rears an ugly head, do we run and jump in a hole and die? We don’t do that. You know, my son and my daughter and our companies will always fulfill obligations, every single one, and absolutely at the end of the day have we not done it and done it and done it?”

In 2019, during the Trump administration, federal prosecutors similarly filed a $4,776,370 lawsuit  against 23 companies headed by Justice. That lawsuit sought payment on 2,297 citations that stacked up from 2014 to the time of the filing under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act.

Justice said then, “We’ll take care of our obligations. We always have and we always will.”

The following year, 2020, federal officials announced a settlement with the Justice companies.

“It is our hope that this landmark collection action and settlement agreement sends a clear message that the Department of Justice will aggressively pursue mine-safety violations and hold owners and operators accountable,” Thomas Cullen, a Trump appointee as federal prosecutor in Western Virginia, stated in April 2020.

This month, federal prosecutors from the Western District of Virginia went after Justice companies for failure to make good on four consecutive monthly payments toward making good on that 2020 settlement.

The latest civil filing is a separate matter, but the situation is similar.

Justice today said it’s stressful but again pointed toward political motivations by federal officials.

“At the end of the day we can stand back and throw rocks at Jay and the family and everything, and we’re a big target. I mean, that’s all there is to it. There’s a lot 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’re even a bigger target today. So you’re going to see stuff like this. But at the end of the day I’ll promise you to God above anything about our waters, our environment, in an way, absolutely, our workers, no matter what it may be, we will absolutely take care of it.”

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