In 2019, a Forbes magazine exposè detailed the well-established pattern of West Virginia Governor Jim Justice failing to pay his bills, coining a nickname for Justice: the “deadbeat billionaire.” That nickname has lost some of its accuracy over the past two years, as Justice’s net worth has slipped below the billion-dollar mark. But the “deadbeat” part of the moniker still holds true, with recent headlines describing Justice family coal companies refusing to honor healthcare commitments to employees, missing deadlines to pay fines and fees, and failing to complete required mine reclamation despite years of extra time granted by regulators.
It’s clear at this point that delaying and evading regulatory compliance is the standard operating procedure for Justice-owned companies. This has obvious negative consequences to the environment, and we at Appalachian Voices have tried to illustrate how this also poses a threat to state reclamation funds (see this March 2020 blog, for example). But what about the workers who should be employed reclaiming these mines?
In late October, we published a new report, “Reclaiming Justice Family-owned Coal Mines Could Create Hundreds of Jobs Across Appalachia,” which estimates that there is enough outstanding reclamation liability on coal mines owned by West Virginia Governor Jim Justice and/or his adult children to employ 220 to 460 workers for five years. Based on data provided by state and federal regulators, we found that nearly 34,000 acres of Justice-family mines across Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia are in need of some degree of environmental cleanup, with more than a third lacking any reclamation work at all.
These jobs have eluded the region’s workforce for years, as regulators have repeatedly extended compliance deadlines for the Justice companies in exchange for promises that anyone paying attention would expect to be broken. In a promising recent development, a state court in Kentucky found that Jim Justice and his son Jay are personally liable for $2.9 million in fines, stemming from numerous violations of reclamation and other environmental standards on five mines in the state’s eastern coalfields. Regulators are now moving forward to revoke these permits, forfeit the associated bonds, and collect the fine money from the Justices. Upon bond forfeiture, reclamation becomes the responsibility of the regulator, or if the regulator chooses, the financial institution that underwrites the bond. Perhaps on at least these five mines, some of these elusive jobs will soon manifest.
“Repairing the Damage: The costs of delaying reclamation at modern-era mines,” a report issued by Appalachian Voices in July 2021, explores the estimated mine cleanup needs at permitted mine sites at seven Eastern states. Check it out to learn more about the problem — and suggestions for how to fix it.
Throughout his political career, Justice has declared his support for miners’ livelihoods at every turn, most vociferously when such claims were in the service of slamming environmental regulations. In a 2017 letter to Congress, Gov. Justice cited jobs in urging opposition to the Stream Protection Rule, an update to federal regulations that would have required higher reclamation standards and more stringent protections for waterways.
Justice got his way on that when former President Trump repealed the Stream Protection Rule early in his administration, and the Congress used a rare statute known as the Congressional Review Act to make sure no similar efforts on the part of regulators would ever proceed.
But it’s the damnedest thing. Even without having to contend with the Stream Protection Rule, Justice companies have left many mines in need of reclamation more-or-less idle for years now, resulting in a lost opportunity for hundreds of would-be workers. The Justices’ business philosophy seems to hold that payroll is an acceptable expense when and only when coal is coming out of the ground. If the Justice companies retained their workforce to complete reclamation — a key aspect of the jobs they’d been promised — rather than simply laying them off and leaving the land and people to languish, then maybe the governor’s lofty rhetoric about jobs wouldn’t ring quite so hollow.