Settlement Approved for Coal Mines Owned by Governor-Elect

Dec 15, 2016

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A federal judge has approved a settlement requiring pollution reductions and a $900,000 civil penalty by Appalachian coal mines owned by West Virginia Governor-elect Jim Justice.

The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice announced the settlement in September with Southern Coal Corp. and 26 affiliates.

The settlement resolves allegations of Clean Water Act violations from Justice-owned mines in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

It requires Southern Coal to use an EPA-approved environmental management system, undergo compliance auditing, implement data tracking, and pay escalating penalties for future violations. It also calls for the company to set up a public website about water test results and to produce a $4.5 million letter of credit to ensure work is done.

U.S. District Judge Glen Conrad approved the consent decree this week, finding it "fair, adequate and reasonable" and not against the public interest.

Calls to Southern Coal and its attorney were not immediately returned Thursday. Company spokesman Tom Lusk said in September that most of the violations cited were from permits inherited from coal companies not previously owned by Southern Coal.

The civil penalty will be split between the federal government and Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. West Virginia withdrew from the lawsuit talks in early 2015, saying the company's compliance had improved under state enforcement since 2008.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General John Cruden wrote in a brief last week, supporting approval, that the settlement followed lengthy negotiations. "It ensures compliance at existing operations, reaches beyond violating facilities to impose company-wide preventive measures, and addresses environmental concerns broader in scope than those alleged in the complaint — all the while avoiding the delay, risk, and expense of protracted litigation," he said.

The federal complaint, filed along with the proposed settlement in September, said the coal companies exceeded their permits for water pollution discharges or failed to sample water and monitor and report discharges "on numerous occasions." Environmental Protection Agency enforcement officer Laurie Ireland cited 852 violations in 2012, dropping to 405 last year and down to 272 so far year. There have been "notable improvements" in the mines' compliance since negotiations began in 2014, she wrote in a court document filed Dec. 2.