W.Va. Governor Family's Coal Firm Sues Regulators
A coal company run by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice's family has sued two Kentucky regulators individually, claiming they're to blame for the company's reclamation delays that could result in $4.5 million in fines.
The Courier-Journal reports that Kentucky Fuel Corporation has sued Kentucky Department for Natural Resources Commissioner Allen Luttrell and Deputy Commissioner John Small. The Pike County Circuit Court lawsuits seek money from the regulators personally, not from the state.
The claims center on whether Justice is violating a 2014 agreement with Kentucky regulators, who cited Kentucky Fuel and other Justice companies with hundreds of coal mine reclamation violations in eight eastern Kentucky counties.
The agreement gave Justice a September 2015 deadline to reclaim nearly 10 miles of highwalls that are carved into mountainsides after mining companies blast away rock and coal in a strip mining technique.
Kentucky officials have told a judge that as late as last month, about five miles of reclamation were still required.
Additionally, they said the companies had been cited for eight more violations since September 2015, further breaching the 2014 agreement. The officials asked the judge to find that the companies violated the agreement and must pay the entire $4.5 million they owed.
However, the judge ruled last month that only 15 of 472 violations had not yet been addressed, and directed the companies to keep moving toward compliance.
Attorneys for Kentucky Fuel claim Luttrell has made "willful and malicious" comments that caused another mining company to back out of performing reclamation at a Pike County mine.
They also claim that Small "willfully and maliciously" stopped excavation at another Pike County mine due to a workers' compensation issue.
Kentucky's Energy cabinet spokesman John Mura said the lawsuits "appear to be an attempt to intimidate public officials from performing their statutory duties to enforce coal mine reclamation laws."
"The legal actions are entirely without merit and will be vigorously defended to protect these state government officials who devote their careers to protecting the land and the citizens of Kentucky," Mura said in a written statement.
Attorney Richard Getty, who represents Kentucky Fuel, said the lawsuits are about accountability, not intimidation.
"When a regulator crosses a line, he ought to be held accountable," Getty said.
According to Kentucky secretary of state records, Justice has removed himself as president or board member of several of his coal companies involved in the case. His son, Jim Justice III, is now Kentucky Fuel's president.
Earlier this month, Justice announced his switch from Democrat to Republican during a West Virginia rally with President Donald Trump.