Longtime coal industry consultant Austin Caperton was named Friday by Gov.-elect Jim Justice to be West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection secretary.
Caperton, a cousin of former Gov. Gaston Caperton, holds a mining engineering degree from Virginia Tech and a law degree from West Virginia University. He is 65.
“Austin Caperton has the management experience to make the West Virginia DEP run efficiently,” Justice said in a news release. “Austin understands the energy sector of our state, and he will strike a balance between protecting our environment and getting rid of needless red tape that hurts job creation. He has the private-sector experience I want to help me make state government operate with business-like accountability.”
Caperton will replace Randy Huffman, who has been DEP secretary for more than eight years under two other Democratic governors, Joe Manchin and Earl Ray Tomblin. Huffman had been expected to be offered the job by Justice, and to accept it, but decided last month to instead move to a full-time position at the Air National Guard. Huffman has served in the Guard since he was 18.
Another person who had been strongly considered for the DEP post was the agency’s general counsel, Kristin Boggs, according to sources within and outside of the DEP.
With more than 800 employees and a more than $200 million annual budget, the DEP is not only a large agency but also can be a constant lightning rod for controversy, given its role regulating the state’s coal, natural gas and chemical industries. Justice himself is a coal operator, although the West Virginia Coal Association endorsed Republican Bill Cole over Justice in last year’s general election.
The Justice transition team’s news release quoted Caperton as saying, “This is a tremendous opportunity to serve the state I love so much. Just like Governor-elect Justice, and others in his Cabinet, I’m walking away from a successful business career to play a part in turning around West Virginia. I look forward to working with the governor-elect to grow jobs while protecting our land, air, and water.”
Reached by phone Friday afternoon, Caperton referred a reporter to Grant Herring, who was Justice’s campaign spokesman and will be the governor’s press secretary. Herring did not respond to a request that he approve an interview with Caperton.
The Justice transition team’s news release announcing Caperton’s appointment noted that he previously has served as the director of the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce, United Bank West Virginia, the state Council for Community & Economic Development and as vice chairman of the state Public Energy Authority.
“I think that’s a great appointment,” said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. “I just can’t imagine anyone having any objections to Austin.”
Rebecca McPhail, president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, said her group looks forward to working with Caperton “to improve environmental permitting for manufacturers, paving the way for much-needed job growth in West Virginia.
“We feel confident that Caperton’s background will assist with the development of a balanced approach to environmental regulation — an approach that reinforces the WVMA’s belief that a healthy environment and healthy economy are not mutually exclusive,” McPhail said.
Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said she appreciates Caperton putting aside his business career to focus on the welfare of the state.
“I optimistically have to interpret that to mean being concerned about the welfare of all the citizens of West Virginia, including those currently suffering [from] the abuses of the coal, gas and chemical industries,” Rank said. “Mr. Caperton’s stated goal of ‘growing jobs while protecting our land, air and water’ has to include keeping an open mind and having a willingness to talk with even those of us who often find ourselves at odds with [the] DEP’s approach to enforcing environmental laws meant to protect both the environment and the people who live in and depend on the environment.”
Bill Price, senior organizing representative for the Sierra Club in West Virginia, said Caperton’s appointment “is deeply concerning.”
“Putting a coal executive like Austin Caperton in charge of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection makes absolutely no sense and could put the protection of our water and air in jeopardy,” Price said. “The person in this important position should have the best interests of West Virginia families at heart. We hope that Mr. Caperton is about true balance and realizes that pollution is a job killer.”
The Justice transition team’s release said Caperton “has experience working with companies to create jobs in the energy industry” and that he has “held a number of senior leadership positions in the business world.”
Justice’s release did not mention — as Caperton does on his own consulting firm website — that several of those senior positions were at the former A.T. Massey Coal Co., the predecessor firm of Massey Energy.
Caperton worked for A.T. Massey from 1983 through 1989, during the time of a bitter United Mine Workers union strike against Massey. Caperton served as a corporate counsel, vice president of operations and vice president of development.
He also was president of Massey’s West Virginia Resource Group, which included Elk Run Coal, Omar Mining, Peerless Eagle Coal and Wyomac Coal. In that role, he “worked to develop strategic plans for acquisitions and growth, as well [as] tactical plans for increasing profitability.”
While at A.T. Massey, Caperton was considered a rival of Don Blankenship, who later became CEO of the publicly traded Massey Energy and currently is in prison after being convicted of conspiracy to violate federal mine safety laws at the Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 workers died in a 2010 explosion.
Austin Caperton’s brother, Hugh, later waged a long — it is still pending in Virginia courts — legal fight against Massey and Blankenship over Hugh Caperton’s allegations that Massey destroyed his own company, Harman Mining. That case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court after West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin declined to recuse himself from the case, despite Blankenship having spent $3 million to help Benjamin win a seat on the court.
“Austin had a prestigious name, a law degree, gracious manners and matchless political and business connections,” author Laurence Leamer wrote in his book, “The Price of Justice,” about the Hugh Caperton case. “Blankenship had none of that, but he won the presidency, and Austin left Massey.”