Flurry of activity in federal action against Justice companies over unpaid civil penalties

A nearly $8 million federal government civil action against coal companies owned by Gov. Jim Justice and his family went quiet for a while but is starting to move again.

The federal court filing from May 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.

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.

In recent weeks, lawyers on behalf of the federal government have objected that the Justice businesses have not responded fully to discovery requests, and the federal magistrate judge overseeing early briefings in the case filed a motion to compel the Justice companies to do so.

“The failure of the Defendants to comply with this order may give rise to appropriate sanctions,” wrote U.S. Magistrate Judge Kailani Memmer of the Western District of Virginia.

The judge established a Dec. 8 deadline for motions for summary judgment from both sides, with responses due about a month later. Summary judgment occurs when the judge rules fully in favor of one party and against the other without a full trial. In other words, the parties are asking the judge to consider written arguments that their side offers a slam dunk.

Lawyers from both sides have officially stipulated a resolution to one aspect of the case — $189,586 plus interest, late payment penalties and administrative expenses for abandoned mine land fees.

That portion of the case is relatively small, financially, compared to the whole.

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 when the lawsuit was first filed.

“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.

The Justice companies have disputed the allegations and have been asking for dismissal of the claims.

“Defendants deny that they have violated all of their legal obligations under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, that they have violated all aspects of their permits, and that they have not paid all of the uncontested penalties assessed,” wrote the lawyers for the Justice companies.

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