A federal appeals panel has affirmed $2.5 million in penalties against Appalachian coal mines owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice over claims they violated a settlement meant to prevent pollution.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, made the ruling Tuesday in an appeal by Southern Coal Corp. and Premium Coal Co. Inc. of a lower court's decision. The ruling also requires remediation work to be completed at mine sites.
The U.S. and several states settled and signed a consent decree with the companies in late 2016 to resolve allegations of Clean Water Act violations from Justice-owned mines in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. The Environmental Protection Agency had said Southern Coal didn’t submit complete and timely discharge monitoring reports, made unauthorized discharges and wouldn’t respond to the EPA’s requests for information.
The Justice Department said in a later filing that the defendants have "a long history" of Clean Water Act violations and noncompliance with the requirements of the 2016 agreement.
The companies had paid $2.9 million in penalties by 2021, but not the separate fines levied in September 2020 over the failure to submit timely permit applications that led to unpermitted discharges at mine sites in Tennessee and Alabama.
The appeals panel wrote that the lower court "properly recognized the absurdity of Southern Coal’s position that it could simply allow its permits to lapse to avoid obligations" under the consent decree. It said the decree had "plain language to mandate compliance with the Clean Water Act and derivative permitting obligations."
Upon taking office in 2017, Justice said his children would run his business empire, but he stopped short of forming a blind trust, saying it was too complicated. The Republican governor has enterprises in hospitality, coal mining and agriculture, many of which have become mired in lawsuits.