CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Thirteen coal companies owned by the family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice are being sued over unpaid penalties for previous mining law violations that the federal government says pose health and safety risks or threaten environmental harm.
Justice, who was not named in the lawsuit, accused the Biden administration of retaliation. A Republican two-term governor, Justice announced in April that he is running for Democrat Joe Manchin’s U.S. Senate seat in 2024. He will face current U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney in the GOP primary.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday says that over the past five years, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement cited the companies for more than 130 violations. The lawsuit says the total amount of penalties, fees, interest and administrative expenses owed by the defendants is about $7.6 million.
U.S. Attorney Christopher Kavanaugh of the Western District of Virginia said the defendants were ordered more than 50 times to stop mining activities until the violations were corrected.
“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,” Kavanaugh said in a statement.
Among the violations, the companies failed to ensure the seismic stability of a dam, to maintain sediment-control measures, to clear rock and debris from a haul road after a rock fall, and to properly dispose of non-coal waste.
“Our environmental laws serve to protect communities against adverse effects of industrial activities including surface coal mining operations,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Todd Kim of the U.S. Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said in a news release. “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.”
Justice listed 112 coal, agricultural and other businesses on a financial disclosure form he filed this year with the state Ethics Commission, including seven that were placed in a blind trust in 2017. His worth peaked at $1.7 billion in recent years, but he was taken off Forbes’ prestigious list of billionaires in 2021.
The governor’s companies have been perennially dogged in litigation over unpaid bills. He has tried to put distance between himself and the businesses, saying that his two adult children now run them. His son, Jay Justice, is named in the lawsuit, which lists Roanoke, Virginia, as the coal companies' principal place of business. A message left for Jay Justice in Roanoke wasn’t immediately returned Wednesday
Jim Justice said he didn’t know details of the lawsuit but expects to be briefed by his son. During his weekly media availability Wednesday, the governor again tried to put space between himself and his companies while also pointing a finger at the Biden administration.
“I've announced as a Republican that I'm running for the U.S. Senate. 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,” Justice said. “There's a lot at stake right now.”
Later Wednesday, Justice's Senate campaign doubled-down on criticism of the lawsuit's timing.
“Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, and the Democrats have seen the polls that show Jim Justice winning this race, and they’re panicking," Roman Stauffer, Justice's campaign manager, said in a statement. "So now the Biden Justice Department has decided to play politics. We will see a lot more of this as the Democrats work to help Alex Mooney because they know they can easily beat him.”
Lavoie reported from Richmond, Virginia.