By John Raby
January 20, 2023 - A coal company owned by the family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has agreed to reclaim three large surface mines in southwestern Virginia to settle a lawsuit with environmental groups.
Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Appalachian Voices and the Sierra Club announced the settlement Thursday with A&G Coal Corp. Under the settlement, the reclamation of about 50,000 acres at all three sites in Wise County will be done in stages, with the final one completed by December 2025, the groups said in a statement.
Compliance of the agreement will be enforceable by a federal court order. The company would face penalties of $37,500 for failing to meet interim deadlines and $75,000 for failing to meet final deadlines. Coal removal at the three sites also would be prohibited if the deadlines aren’t met. The company also will finance a dedicated reclamation escrow account with a portion of revenue from any coal mined at the three mines, up to $600,000, the statement said.
“It’s critically important that every coal mine be fully reclaimed by the operator in order to ensure that local communities are not burdened with ongoing negative environmental impacts,” said Judy Gayer, conservation and legal chair for the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter. “We’re pleased that today’s settlement will accelerate the reclamation of these three sites and benefit communities in Wise County.”
Mine reclamation is the practice of restoring land ravaged by coal mining operations. In some instances the land is reclaimed for development, but often it’s replanted with fresh vegetation and trees and restored to a more natural state.
Reclamation of shuttered coal mine sites is considered crucial to preventing environmental pollution and returning land to its natural setting. Contaminants can seep into waterways and harm wildlife if not properly handled after a mine closes.
Permits for the mines were issued in 2004. In their initial complaint, the groups said about 900 acres of more than 3,300 total acres disturbed over nearly two decades had been regraded and revegetated. A 2014 consent agreement between the company and Virginia Energy resulted in limited reclamation, the statement said.
The two-term Republican governor’s press office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment from Justice’s family business on the settlement.
Justice reached billionaire status through family-owned farms and coal mines. His worth peaked at $1.7 billion, but he was taken off Forbes’ prestigious list of billionaires in 2021. He blamed a bankrupt U.K. bank for fraudulently inducing him to personally guarantee $700 million in loans for his companies.
Justice’s businesses have faced several other woes, including millions of dollars in penalties from the federal government and court fights over claims his companies failed to deliver coal, pay tax debts owed to counties or contribute toward monthly premiums on employee benefit plans.
Before going into politics, Justice bought the 6,500-acre Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs out of bankruptcy for $20.1 million in 2009. Within a year he had constructed a bunker casino beneath the posh resort’s 721-room hotel and established a PGA Tour golf event that was held on the Old White TPC for 10 years.