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West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Austin Caperton is stepping down.

Caperton is returning to the private sector. Gov. Jim Justice called him a “dear friend” and “true superstar” in a news release Tuesday afternoon upon announcing Caperton’s forthcoming departure, effective at midnight on Monday, Jan. 18 — the end of Justice’s first term in office.

In an interview Tuesday, Caperton, 69, said he is eager to return to his legal and strategic business consulting firm, Caperton Inc., where he served as president for 27 years prior to Justice appointing him DEP secretary in January 2017.

Caperton also is a former coal company executive. He served as vice president of development at A.T. Massey Coal Co. from 1988 to 1989. He served as corporate counsel for Massey Coal Services operating subsidiaries from 1983 to 1984. He also was president of Slab Fork Coal Co. from 1980 to 1983.

“My legacy will be that I just unleashed [the DEP staff] to do their job, and they took it and ran with it,” Caperton said.

The Governor’s Office news release announcing Caperton’s departure touted his role in the DEP’s disbursement of more than $100 million in grant funding through the Abandoned Mine Lands Pilot Program, helping West Virginia meet all federal ambient air quality standards for the first time in more than 40 years and development of the T&T Treatment Facility, a Cheat River watershed restoration project.

But Caperton has faced criticism for what conservationists and other detractors say has been a lax approach from the DEP toward environmental oversight.

In 2017, the DEP waived the state’s authority to certify that proposals for the Mountain Valley Pipeline and Atlantic Coast Pipeline would comply with state water quality standards. The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition was one of three environmental groups to sue Caperton, alleging in a July lawsuit that the DEP violated its duty to inform the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement of a substantial change in its special reclamation fund. It warned that permit holders slipping into insolvency could overwhelm the DEP’s bonding system and result in more abandoned mining sites and public health threats.

“Caperton — who had ties to the coal industry — is not leaving a great legacy,” said Vivian Stockman, executive director of the OVEC, citing concerns about air quality around chemical plants, fracking sites and mountaintop removal operations and noting that West Virginia has one of the highest cancer rates in the nation. “The agency just doesn’t have a great track record of safeguarding the environment and human health. It would be beneficial for us all if the new DEP secretary doesn’t not come flying right out a revolving door from some polluting industry.”

Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, expressed appreciation for Caperton’s service as secretary but is looking ahead to Justice’s next appointment for the role.

“[We] hope it will be someone who will be a strong advocate for the DEP and its mission,” Rosser said. “We also want to see a renewed commitment to transparency and involvement of the public in agency decision-making.”

Justice named Caperton chairman of his downstream jobs task force in 2019, making him responsible for recruiting the petrochemical and plastics industries to locate in West Virginia.

Caperton said his tenure as DEP secretary did not promote business at the expense of the environment.

“We take every citizen’s right to a clean environment very seriously, and we do our job very well,” Caperton said. “I disagree wholeheartedly with any assertion, particularly under this governor, that we go easy on people. That’s not what we do. Our job is all about keeping stuff out of the creek and out of the air. That’s all we do, really.”

West Virginia’s coal, oil and gas industry leaders lauded Caperton’s performance as DEP secretary Tuesday.

“Secretary Caperton has done a great job heading up [the] DEP over the past several years,” said Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association. “He is extraordinarily skilled at organizational development and knows the business well.”

Charlie Burd, executive director of the Independent Oil & Gas Association of West Virginia, said Caperton worked to advance business interests and protect the environment.

“Austin just looked at regulating industries from a business perspective,” Burd said. “In that regard, it’s a bit easier to regulate when you understand the implications of regulations. I think Austin came to the office with a wonderful business sense about him.”

“Permitting is not designed to deter business,” Caperton said. “It’s designed so that people who want to do business do it in an environmentally friendly fashion.”

Justice will appoint Caperton’s successor at a later date, his office announced Tuesday.