West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has approved a tax break for a struggling coal-fired power plant whose operator says a company owned by the governor owes it $3.1 million.
The Republican governor on Tuesday signed a bill to stop charging FirstEnergy Solutions a $12.5 million state tax. The company has been operating in bankruptcy, and its CEO had said its Pleasants Power Station in Willow Island would likely close in the next year without the tax exemption.
FirstEnergy Solutions has an ongoing federal suit against Justice's Bluestone Energy Sales Corp. accusing the governor's company of reneging on a 2016 agreement to buy $3.1 million worth of coal.
The governor's general counsel, Brian Abraham, said Justice was not personally aware of the case and that it was never brought up in any of the contact with the company.
"So to say that he'd done something to help them, to benefit his company, is just ridiculous," Abraham said of the governor.
Justice pushed hard for the bill and widened the scope of a special legislative session on education so that lawmakers could take up the proposal. The measure quickly passed both the House and the Senate with bipartisan support as local and state officials said the closure of the plant and the loss of its 160 jobs would have gutted the county's economy and hurt coal producers.
One day after lawmakers sent the bill to the governor's office, The Parkersburg News and Sentinel reported on the legal battle between Bluestone and FirstEnergy Solutions.
In an interview Tuesday, Republican Sen. Craig Blair said he wished he had known about the case but said the bill would have still passed because he felt it was the right thing to do.
"I think it doesn't look good from the governor's standpoint," he said about the case.
Justice lists more than 100 business interests in his most recent financial disclosure statement , including coal companies. He has said he wants to put all his assets in a blind trust but hasn't done so.
"Nothing on this planet could make me more proud than just right now, this minute, being able to sign this bill," Justice said in a Tuesday press release. "I mean it when I tell you that the coal industry in our state is unbelievably important and we've got to preserve it in every way."