By Alexandra Kanik and Brittany Patterson
April 10, 2019 - West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice promised to wipe out his family's debt from mine safety violations when he ran for governor in 2016. Instead, that debt has more than doubled since NPR first reported on it in 2014, amounting to millions of dollars.
"We'll absolutely ... make sure that every one of [the debts] is taken care of," Justice said at a news conference announcing his campaign for governor.
The Justice companies owe more than $4 million to the federal government, according to a new Ohio Valley ReSource analysis of federal data. That's the highest delinquent mine safety debt in the U.S. mining industry — and those unpaid violations have been a chronic problem for the Justice family for years, despite many promises to pay.
In 2014, an NPR investigation showed Justice companies owed just under $2 million in delinquent federal mine safety penalties, which are levied by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Two years later, when Jim Justice was running for governor, the companies' debt had climbed to $2.6 million, according to a follow-up NPR investigation.
By the end of 2018, the Justice companies — now mainly controlled by the governor's children, James Justice III and Jillean Justice — owed millions more in delinquent mine safety penalties. Their delinquent debt ballooned to $4.3 million, according to the ReSource data analysis. The data were originally obtained by NPR's Howard Berkes through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
"[Gov. Justice] and his family has simply chosen to disregard, flagrantly violate, continually violate and increasingly violate the rules of mine safety and the penalties of mine safety," says Davitt McAteer, a former head of MSHA during the Clinton administration.
The delinquent penalties were accrued by the Justice companies between June 2009 and August 2018 at 71 mines in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia. Collectively, the Justice companies' unpaid fines and penalties account for nearly 10 percent of all delinquent debt owed by mining companies in the country.
The governor's office did not respond to requests for comment. The Justice companies referred questions to attorney Richard Getty, who represents the company in Kentucky. In a statement, Getty touted the company's safety record, despite owing millions in unpaid mine safety fines and violations.
"The Justice Group is also very proud to report that its accident and incident history of currently operated mines is very favorable," he stated.
The ReSource analysis found injury rates at delinquent Justice mines fall close to the national industry average. However, that does not mean those mines were free of unsafe conditions. From 2009 to 2019, Justice mines had 5,560 violations for things like failing to maintain equipment, accumulation of combustible materials, and failure to develop and follow ventilation plans.
Source: MSHA Debt by Age data
By Alexandra Kanik, Ohio Valley ReSource
About one-third of violations issued at delinquent Justice mines were listed as what MSHA calls "Significant and Substantial," meaning the observed conditions at the mine present a reasonable likelihood that an injury or illness will occur. Nine violations were for conditions that federal regulators say placed miners in "imminent danger" of death or serious physical harm.
Getty, the attorney, acknowledged the $4.3 million in unpaid fines. But he said the company "vehemently denies responsibility for this total." According to Getty, a "very significant portion" of the penalties occurred at mines operated by a Russian company prior to their acquisition by the Justice family.
That's a claim Justice, his attorneys and spokesmen have made in the past. But the NPR and ReSource analyses of the federal data show none of the unpaid fines were incurred when mines were operated by the Russian company. The current $4.3 million in delinquent penalties are associated only with mines owned by the Justice companies when they owned them.
That was confirmed by an MSHA spokesperson in response to a direct question: The regulatory and enforcement agency "stands by its assessment of fines and penalties for the Justice companies."
Getty also claimed the Justices were "currently involved in negotiations" with MSHA to "reach a fair and reasonable settlement." But in a statement, MSHA said that's not true: The agency is not "currently involved in negotiations with the Justice group."
While the Justice-owned companies are the top delinquents, they are not the only mining companies in the region that fail to pay their fines and penalties. Thousands of the country's mine operators continue to not pay fines assessed for health and safety violations. MSHA is owed more than $45 million in overdue fines, some as old as 1994, according to the ReSource analysis.
Delinquent mines represent about 8 percent of the nation's more than 40,000 coal, metal and nonmetal mines. Among the country's active coal mines, 23 percent are delinquent.
Working in mines that fail to pay penalties has potentially major impacts to the health and safety of miners. Injury rates for miners working in delinquent underground coal mines are 31 percent higher than rates at mines that are not currently delinquent, according to the ReSource analysis.
Mine inspections and citations exist to protect the nation's coal miners, says Patrick McGinley, a professor of environmental law at West Virginia University.
"Any friend of coal has to admit that there is no greater responsibility of a coal operator than to protect the lives of miners," he says. "The failure to pay civil penalties is a way of saying, 'Safety doesn't matter. We don't care, we can get away with it.' "
This story was reported in partnership with The Ohio Valley ReSource, a regional public media collaborative reporting on economic and social change in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.