November 3, 2021 - Several West Virginia coal companies with ties to Gov. Jim Justice plan to resume coal production at four surface mines in Eastern Kentucky, bringing 150 new jobs to the region.
Justice's son Jay, president of the Justice Companies, said it was working to reopen the production sites at the Bevins Branch and Beech Creek mines in Pike County, the Bull Creek mine in Knott County and the Infinity mine in Harlan County.
The Infinity and Bevins Branch mines were among five in a 2019 lawsuit settlement by the state of Kentucky against Jim and Jay Justice and several other family coal companies.
The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet argued in the lawsuit that the Justices had reneged on a past agreement to fix reclamation and environmental problems at the mines. They had agreed to clean out ponds designed to keep sediment out of streams, as well as stabilizing landslides, monitoring water quality and eliminating highwalls.
The settlement arranged deadlines for the Justices to complete this work and required the companies to put up a $2.9 million letter of credit the state could take if the Justices defaulted. In late September, the cabinet filed a motion, accusing the Justices of missing the deal's deadlines.
The state then moved to collect the $2.9 million plus interest, revoke permits for the Justice's five mines and block their companies from getting new permits or revising current permits until the violations were fixed, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
The family's attorneys said the state's response was “overly harsh,” unfair, and not consistent with the law. They stated that the COVID-19 pandemic had made it impossible to meet the deadlines set out in the 2019 settlement.
An attorney for the Justices contacted state regulators in 2020 to propose using the $2.9 million to finance the reclamation work. The state rejected the idea.
Justice said reopening the four mines in Eastern Kentucky was possible due to the nation's economic recovery. Coal production in Eastern Kentucky was up nearly 46% in the April-to-June quarter compared to the same time a year earlier, and jobs had picked up by 3.57%, according to the Herald-Leader.
Justice said there are plans to finish the reclamation work required under the 2019 deal but it will take more time. He said in a letter to a state official in late October that the companies could finish work at the Bevins Branch mine by April 1 and at the Infinity mine by April 20.
“We’re not trying to get out of a liability at all,” Justice said in a letter to a state official in late October.
The state does not benefit from the Justice companies’ practice of obtaining mine permits “then leaving violations unabated and the permits unreclaimed for years while they evade enforcement and ask repeatedly for extensions of time to do the reclamation work that the law requires,” state attorneys told the Herald-Leader.