West Virginia environmental regulators have suspended a mining permit for one of the region’s most prominent coal companies after a long string of environmental violations.
The Department of Environmental Protection issued a suspension order last week to Lexington Coal Co. LLC on a Boone County mine permit, citing violations the agency said “present imminent and identifiable threats to the public health and safety.”
The agency has issued Lexington Coal, whose West Virginia operations are based in Milton, 15 unabated-violation notices over a nine-month period for the Crescent No. 2 Surface Mine. Violations have included lack of sediment control, mining that caused hillside areas to slide and allowing runoff drainage into Matts Creek.
The permit covers over 1,100 acres in the Coal River watershed near Crook.
The suspension order required Lexington to immediately stop all mining operations on the permit and send the DEP a permit revision, including a detailed plan to abate the 15 unabated violation notices. The plan must lead to completed reclamation within 180 days of the agency’s approval of the permit revision.
The DEP had threatened to suspend or revoke Lexington’s permits for the Crescent No. 2 Surface Mine and the Twilight III-A Surface Mine, near Twilight, last month, issuing show-cause orders for both mines. The mines have drawn a combined 42 violation notices from the DEP since the start of last year.
For the Crescent No. 2 mine, the DEP cited alleged sediment control failures dating from February to May that the agency said resulted in water exiting a mining area into Matts Creek and allowed coal pit water to exit through a water pollution control outlet as black discolored discharge.
Lexington Coal could not be reached for comment. The DEP did not respond to a request for comment.
The DEP had issued a previous show-cause order for the Crescent No. 2 mine in March. The agency cited the company’s failure to maintain sediment control structures, prevent sediment from collecting heavily at the bottom of a hill and in Matts Creek, and keep large rocks from rolling down a hill, damaging trees and settling in a stream bed.
But Lexington still held the permit before the DEP’s suspension order, a move Raleigh County-based anti-mountaintop removal mining nonprofit Coal River Mountain Watch had called for.
Vernon Haltom, the group’s executive director, said the DEP “made the right decision” in suspending the permit.
“[Lexington] has practically begged [the] WVDEP to take this action, the first action with real teeth, through their patterns of flagrant violations of the laws intended to protect the people and environment,” Haltom said in an email.
But Crescent No. 2 is just one of 189 mining permits issued to Lexington statewide. Haltom said the company’s mining operations throughout its Twilight mine complex, spanning over 5,000 acres, threatens the health of the area’s communities.
“[Lexington] should not remove any more coal from this mountain, and [the] WVDEP should not allow any more permit renewals,” Haltom said.
The West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office lists Lexington’s manager as Jeremy Hoops, son of Jeff Hoops, who stepped down as CEO of mining companies Blackjewel and Revelation Energy as part of a 2019 bankruptcy deal.
Lexington has been in trouble with the DEP before. The agency fined Lexington $125,000 last year for water pollution permit violations after the company exceeded pollution limits at 15 sites across five southern coalfield counties from 2018 through 2020.
Lexington’s environmental troubles have been not just regulatory but legal.
A federal judge castigated the company in an order last month that found the company had failed to address inconsistent compliance with standards for a pollutant that has toxic impacts on aquatic life.
U.S. District Judge Robert Chambers ruled that Lexington must keep paying an accrued fine that he levied in July after finding the company was unwilling to comply with court mandates to show how it will address pollution at two Mingo County mine sites.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia has found the company liable for violating the conditions of its permit limiting discharges of selenium. Selenium accumulation in larval aquatic insects and fish from mine-affected streams has long eaten away at the biodiversity of central Appalachian water.
Chambers ordered Lexington in July to pay a $1,000-per-day fine, retroactive to May 29, for not complying with previous rulings mandating more detailed mine site cleanup efforts. Chambers later raised the daily fine to $1,500, in response to what he found was continued noncompliance. He stayed the fine, as of Sept. 6, after Lexington submitted a more detailed remediation plan. The court is now reviewing that plan.