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Justice coal company reaches agreement with environmental groups to reclaim Virginia mine sites

Mike Tony, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, W.Va.  


    Jan. 23—One of Gov. Jim Justice's family coal companies has agreed to finish reclaiming three Virginia mine sites that environmental groups say are years behind in complying with past reclamation agreements.

    Under the proposed deal filed in federal court, A&G Coal Corp. has agreed to a reclamation schedule that environmental groups said was neglected for nearly a decade in a Virginia county neighboring West Virginia.

    The groups said A&G regraded less than an acre over nine years ending in March on one permit and no land over more than a half-dozen years ending last spring on two other permits.

    In the deal, A&G Coal acknowledged having 1,311 acres left to regrade and acres to reclaim or revegetate. The company said it had regraded an additional 397.5 acres on the three mine sites during the spans specified by the environmental groups.

    Amendments to A&G Coal compliance agreements with Virginia regulators have pushed back reclamation deadlines dating to 2014, the organizations said.

    A federal judge has yet to approve the consent decree agreement between A&G, the Sierra Club and two Wise County groups, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and Appalachian Voices. A hearing on the motion by A&G and the groups is scheduled for Tuesday.

    "This settlement represents a decade of persistent focus on holding A&G Coal accountable to the communities negatively impacted by their extraction practices," Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards board President Terran Young said in a statement.

    The Governor's Office did not respond to a request for comment. An attorney for the Justice family's coal companies did not provide comment.

    The environmental groups argued last year upon filing a notice of intent to sue A&G that the Virginia Department of Energy was failing to diligently prosecute the company. In a statement last year, the Virginia Department of Energy challenged the environmental groups' assertion that "almost no reclamation progress was made" at any of the three mines.

    An agency official said 5,300 linear feet of highwall had been removed and mostly returned to the original contour. The agency collected $1.8 million from the three permits and $4.8 million from all Justice companies in civil penalties from 2014 to May, the official said.

    Appalachian Voices issued a report in 2021 calculating that there is enough outstanding reclamation liability on Justice family coal mines to employ 220 to 460 workers for five years.

    Federal law requires that coal companies secure bonds to ensure mines are cleaned up. Nearly 20,000 acres of Justice family coal mines were only partially reclaimed, and 14,000 acres were unreclaimed altogether, Appalachian Voices' report found.

    "As demand for coal continues to decline, it's more important than ever that the reclamation and bonding requirements at the heart of our surface mining laws are strictly enforced so that the reclamation work actually gets done and these costs aren't passed along to the nearby communities," said Judy Gayer, legal chairwoman for the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter.

    Under the proposed agreement, Virginia-based A&G would finish reclamation at the Looney Ridge Surface Mine #1 by Aug. 31; the Canepatch Surface Mine by Feb. 29, 2024; and the Sawmill Hollow #3 Mine by Dec. 31, 2025. A&G would be prohibited from coal removal at the sites until it reports compliance with all deadlines.

    Failure to put specified Caterpillar tractors, rock trucks and other reclamation equipment on the sites by specified deadlines would prompt a $37,500 penalty. Failure to finish reclaiming any of the three sites by the deadlines would trigger a $75,000 penalty per site.

    Penalties would be paid to Upper Tennessee River Roundtable, a Washington County, Virginia-based water quality nonprofit group.

    A&G would allow access to each of the mine sites by the environmental groups' representatives. A&G agreed to set up a reclamation escrow account in which it would deposit $100,000, or a third of all revenue generated from the sale of coal mined at the sites that month. The obligation to fund the escrow account would stop when the account's funds total $600,000. The company could only spend the money on reclamation of the three mine sites.

    Justice's companies have a long history of environmental violations and unpaid obligations.

    Last month, another company controlled by the Justice family agreed to pay $925,000 and follow air monitoring requirements to address years of air quality concerns for largely Black neighborhoods around a company plant in Alabama.

    The agreement was struck between foundry coke producer Bluestone Coke LLC's metallurgical coke plant in Jefferson County, Alabama, the county's health board and an area health advocacy group following air pollution violations cited by the board.

    In December 2021, a federal judge ordered more than two dozen Justice coal companies to pay $2.5 million in penalties and clean up sites as required by Tennessee environmental regulators. The U.S. Department of Justice and the states of Alabama and Tennessee alleged the companies failed to comply with a 2016 consent agreement under which they pledged to address environmental violations.

    Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski ruled in the Western District of Virginia the companies violated that agreement by failing to maintain water pollution control permits for sites in Alabama and Tennessee.

    The agreement required Southern Coal Corp. and two dozen other companies to pay a $900,000 civil penalty to resolve more than 23,000 water pollution violations.

    In November 2021, a Kentucky circuit court judge ruled Justice, his son and seven of their coal companies must pay $3 million for violating a 2019 mine cleanup agreement into which they entered with Kentucky environmental regulators.

    The governor said he would put his adult children in charge of his family's business operations upon taking office in 2017. He has suggested in court proceedings and interviews since taking office that he remains familiar with his coal companies' operations.

    Coal companies controlled by Justice and his children were responsible for $3.14 million in federal mine safety debt — a fifth of all that debt nationwide — as of October, according to data obtained by the Gazette-Mail in a Freedom of Information Act request.

    The Justice family's coal companies were three months in arrears in a payment plan under an April 2020 agreement in which they agreed with the feds to pay $5.1 million to cover mine safety fine delinquencies, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Virginia's Western District said last month.

    Bluestone Coal Corp., another Justice coal company, fell behind in 2021 in paying attorney and expert fees as ordered by a federal court that found the company liable for water pollution near a McDowell County surface mine.

    The West Virginia Secretary of State's Office lists the governor's son, James C. Justice III, as president of A&G Coal, and his daughter, Jillean L. Justice, as a company directors.

    Mike Tony covers energy and

    the environment. He can be

    reached at 304-348-1236 or

    Follow @Mike__Tony on Twitter.


    (c)2023 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.)

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