DOJ Sues West Virginia’s Jim Justice Over EPA Fines

The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday sued Republican West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s family coal empire in federal court for millions of dollars in unpaid penalties, fees, and interest for dozens of legal violations.

The two-term governor—who is seeking U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) seat in next year’s election—is not named in the civil suit but his son, James “Jay” Justice III, is, as the owner or operator of the 13 defendant companies.

Politico noted that “although the suit doesn’t name the elder Justice, he’s faced scrutiny before for the unpaid fines as well as reports that he’s still maintained a firm grip on the family business.”

Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said in a statement that “our environmental laws serve to protect communities against adverse effects of industrial activities including surface coal mining operations.”

“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,” Kim added.

The department’s complaint accuses the 13 coal companies of violating their legal obligations under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (“SMCRA”), or permits issued under the law, and failing “to pay uncontested penalties assessed for their uncontested violations.”

“Defendants have been cited for over 130 violations and have failed to pay over $5 million in civil penalties assessed by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (“OSMRE”),” the filing states. “In addition, certain defendants also collectively owe, and have not paid, over $190,000 in abandoned mine land (“AML”) reclamation fee debts.”

When interest, late payment penalties, and administrative expenses are included, the defendants owe approximately $7.6 million, according to the Justice Department—which took legal action on behalf of the “OSMRE”, a branch of the Interior Department.

“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,” Kavanaugh explained. “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.”

Justice took office as a Democrat in January 2017 and later that year, at a rally with Republican then-President Donald Trump, announced he was returning to the GOP. His online biography boasts about various business ventures, stating that after his father’s death, “Jim launched a massive expansion of multiple businesses which included significant coal reserve expansion, Christmas tree farms, cotton gins, turfgrass operations, golf courses, timber enhancement, and land projects.”

The 72-year-old “has dozens of business holdings listed on his
annual state ethics disclosures,” West Virginia’s MetroNewsreported Wednesday. “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.”

During a Wednesday briefing, the governor reportedly reiterated that he does not control the coal companies’ day-to-day operations and said that “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,” Justice added. “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?”

MetroNewspointed out that in 2019, under Trump, federal prosecutors filed a similar $4.7 million lawsuit against several Justice coal companies stemming from nearly 2,300 citations—which resulted in a 2020 settlement. Earlier this month, prosecutors filed a motion over those companies’ failure to make four consecutive payments since February.

The new suit comes after the East Carolina University Center for Survey Research on Tuesday
released polling results which show that in a hypothetical 2024 U.S. Senate race between Justice and Manchin, the governor has a 22-point lead, securing support from 54% of registered West Virginia voters compared with the 32% who said they would support the incumbent.

The 75-year-old Democratic senator—who has come under fire nationally for serving fossil fuel interests and thwarting his own party’s agenda—has not yet said whether he plans to seek reelection. However, there has been speculation that he may instead run for president next year. Manchin
said in a statement last month, “Make no mistake, I will win any race I enter.”

Republished from Common Dreams under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

DOJ Sues West Virginia’s Jim Justice Over EPA Fines

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