The federal government is suing Gov. Jim Justice’s coal companies for about $4.8 million in mine safety penalties and fines, according to a complaint filed Tuesday.
Justice, whose 23 coal companies do business in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky, repeatedly violated the Mine Safety and Health Act, racking up millions in penalties and subsequent fines, according to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.
The lawsuit lists Justice, his son, James “Jay” Justice III, and daughter, Dr. Jill Justice, as controllers of the mines.
The citations span from May 2014 to May 2019. In that time period, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration issued at least 2,297 citations for about $4 million, according to the lawsuit.
Justice’s family companies didn’t pay the penalties, even after third-party debt collectors tried to collect the money, according to the lawsuit.
The Treasury referred debts to the United States Department of Justice, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia made a written request for the penalties and fines, the lawsuit says.
Now, the federal government is asking for $4.8 million — the initial $4 million fine, plus about $800,000 in unpaid fees.
“Failure to pay penalties is unfair to miners who deserve safe workplaces, and to mine operators who play by the rules,” David Zatezalo, the assistant secretary of labor for MSHA, said in a statement.
The companies had been negotiating a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said Mike Carey, attorney for James C. Justice Companies.
“The Justices are disappointed that the U.S. Attorney in Roanoke has decided to follow this route and pursue a lawsuit at this time,” Carey said by phone Tuesday. Lawyers for the Justice companies had expected to continue negotiating through June, Carey said.
“The case will be defended vigorously,” he said.
The Governor’s Office declined to comment and referred questions to Carey.
Justice and his office have said the governor was handing over day-to-day control of his coal holdings to his son, and his hospitality businesses, including The Greenbrier resort, to his daughter. During his campaign in 2016, NPR reported that Justice owed about $2.6 million in delinquent federal mine safety penalties. Last month, the Ohio Valley ReSource said the companies owed more than $4 million to the federal government.
“This is unacceptable, and, as indicated by this suit, we will hold them accountable,” U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen said in a prepared statement Tuesday.
The lawsuit comes amid a federal investigation that has included subpoenas from the U.S. Department of Justice seeking documents from the West Virginia Department of Commerce into the state’s relationship with some of Justice’s private businesses. Last week, WV MetroNews reported that the Department of Revenue, too, had received a federal subpoena seeking records regarding Justice’s companies and their tax obligations.
(Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated how much Justice owed in penalties and fines. The lawsuit states the governor owes millions in penalties and fines.)