Shifting costs onto others an in-Justice; billionaire coal operator stiffs 5 states

Jim Justice II
Jim Justice II Photo provided

Worth an estimated $1.6 billion, West Virginian Jim Justice II ranks 342nd on Forbes' list of richest Americans, and yet, his businesses are notorious for not paying their bills.

Justice is sticking Kentuckians with another huge tab: His coal operations have failed for years to reclaim strip-mined land, increasing water pollution and the threat of flooding.

Justice's excuses, as reported by The Roanoke Times in Virginia — that the market for coal left him "no choice in the matter" and that "the majority of this is all paperwork" — are ridiculous.

The law requires contemporaneous reclamation. Coal operators are supposed to reclaim the land as it is mined, not wait until all the coal has been stripped from hundreds of acres and they're ready to pack up and move on, although it is cheaper to do it that way.

Kentucky officials have cited Justice-controlled companies for leaving a 7,000-foot-long highwall — that's more than a mile — in Harlan County and a half-mile highwall in Letcher County.

Highwalls are the towering rock faces exposed by surface mining. Unless the state has granted a specific exemption, highwalls are never to be more than 1,500 feet long. The law requires that they be backfilled and graded to restore the land's approximate original contour within 180 days of mining the coal from each section.

Coal operators who do the right thing and reclaim the land as it's mined suffer a competitive disadvantage against operators like Justice who risk public health and safety by cutting huge corners.

According to reporting by the Roanoke newspaper and The Courier-Journal of Louisville, companies owned by Justice face 266 unresolved violations in five states; almost half of them, 129, are in Eastern Kentucky.

Kentucky has assessed $2 million in civil penalties against Justice-owned mining operations. The violations have become so voluminous and egregious that the state is threatening to collect by going after company officials' own money.

The crucial point here is not unpaid fines but what they represent: Violations of the law that put thousands of people who live near Justice's mines in harm's way.

This time last year, when The Associated Press reported about all the businesses in Central Appalachia that were owed money by Justice's companies, he blamed the downturn in the coal industry and said he couldn't afford to pay all his debts and keep miners employed.

So he shifted his costs onto others.

The coal industry has a long history of shifting its costs onto others, in the form of poisoned water, air and people.

Justice, who rescued and owns the Greenbrier resort, and his family have contributed more than $400,000 to Gov. Steve Beshear and his causes.

If Justice walks away from his operations, his reclamation bonds won't be enough to fix all the damage. The costs would be shifted onto others — again.