Coal companies tied to West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced plans Monday to hire 150 employees at three surface mines in Eastern Kentucky.
The mines — two in Pike County and one in Letcher County — have been inactive due to a decline in the coal market, according to a news release from Bluestone Industries, a coal company with ties to the Justice family. The company said it is accepting applications and plans to begin production immediately.
Justice and his family own dozens of mining companies throughout central Appalachia and owe millions in unpaid property taxes to the Kentucky counties where they operate.
The largest outstanding bill is to Knott County, where the Justice-affiliated company Kentucky Fuel owed $1.95 million as of Monday. The company owes about $284,000 to Pike County, according to the county's delinquent tax office, and more than $200,000 to Harlan County, according to Harlan County Clerk Donna Hoskins.
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In February, the Herald-Leader found that Justice companies owed a total of $2.9 million across Eastern Kentucky, shorting school systems and local governments in a region where many counties struggle with tight budgets and population loss.
Justice, in an interview Monday with the Herald-Leader, said those companies have the right to dispute the tax bills in some cases, but "we’re not going to walk away from an obligation."
The addition of 150 jobs is welcome news in Eastern Kentucky, which has seen a sharp decline in coal jobs over the past decade.
According to data from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, the number of coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky fell from more than 13,600 in 2011 to just over 4,000 in 2017. In the first three months of 2018, that number slid to 3,835.
Pike County, the largest coal producer in the Eastern region, ended the first quarter of 2018 with 921 jobs, slightly more than the county had in the same quarter of 2017, but 18.4 percent less than the last three months of 2017.
Letcher County ended the first quarter of 2018 with just 81 coal jobs.
One of the mines scheduled to reopen is Pike County's Bent Mountain surface mine site, the same mountain where developers plan to build a $150 million solar farm.
The solar project, though, partially depends on Kentucky Fuel completing mine reclamation work at the site.
According to a report by Inside Climate News, Justice reached an agreement with state regulators in 2014 in which he promised to complete reclamation at mine sites throughout Eastern Kentucky, including Bent Mountain.
The company, though, has failed to complete that reclamation work. It has since filed suit against two Kentucky state regulators, claiming they disrupted the reclamation process. That case, which Kentucky's Energy and Environment Cabinet has criticized for being meritless, is ongoing.
Adam Edelen, a former state auditor and one of the solar project's developers, said the re-opening of the mine at Bent Mountain is one of the first steps necessary to move ahead with reclamation.
Part of the reclamation process, Edelen said, required additional mining.
"It’s actually excellent news for my project," Edelen said. "Our enemy on this project … was inactivity."
Justice also said the additional mining will help the company move forward on reclamation.
"The easiest way to finish the reclamation there is to mine your way through the reclamation," Justice said.
Justice, who was elected as a Democrat but has since switched his party affiliation to Republican, also said he is working with President Donald Trump on a larger deal that could breathe new life into Central Appalachia's coal industry.
About a year ago, Justice said he met with Trump in the White House and first proposed a plan to give incentives to utility companies that buy coal from Central and Northern Appalachia. The two "have worked continuously on this" since that meeting, Justice said.
The incentives — Justice proposed $10 per ton of coal bought from Appalachian producers — would help the region compete with Western producers and the natural gas industry.
Justice said the plan is a matter of national security. If the nation becomes completely dependent on natural gas and coal mined in the Western U.S., he said that could make it vulnerable to terrorists who could attack pipelines and coal transportation routes.
"There is nothing, nothing, as important as keeping the Eastern coal fields viable at least for the foreseeable future," Justice said. "We have a real possibility with our president of getting this through, and he can get this through without legislation."
Justice said the plan could be implemented through the Department of Homeland Security, which would not require the approval of Congress.
"If we die, then the eastern power grid is completely dependent on western coal and gas, and my God, that is so dangerous," he said. "I think there’s a real, real chance that this is going to become reality."
Herald-Leader reporter Bill Estep contributed to this story.