West Virginia governor’s coal company engaging in ‘attempt to intimidate public officials’

Legal expert calls the lawsuits against public servants "deeply troubling."

The family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has filed lawsuits against two Kentucky regulatory officials. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
The family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has filed lawsuits against two Kentucky regulatory officials. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

The family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) is suing two top officials at the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources after the state tried to collect millions of dollars in unpaid fines from coal companies owned by Justice. Legal experts are describing the lawsuits as acts of intimidation against government officials seeking to hold a company accountable for violating the law.

The lawsuits, filed in Pike County Circuit Court on behalf of Kentucky Fuel Corp., owned by Justice, allege the actions of Kentucky Department for Natural Resources Commissioner Allen Luttrell and Deputy Commissioner John Small could have cost the company up to $4.5 million in fines, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported. In a highly unusual move, the company is seeking money from department officials themselves, not the state of Kentucky for which they work.

The Department of Natural Resources had cited Kentucky Fuel and other Justice-owned companies with hundreds of coal-mining reclamation violations in eastern Kentucky. Federal law requires that coal companies rehabilitate land after coal mining operations have stopped.

“These lawsuits appear to be an attempt to intimidate public officials from performing their statutory duties to enforce coal mine reclamation laws,” John Mura, spokesperson for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress. “The legal actions are entirely without merit and will be vigorously defended to protect our state government officials who devote their careers to safeguarding the land and the health of Kentucky citizens.”

Justice won West Virginia governor’s race last year running as a Democrat. Earlier this month, Justice appeared at a campaign rally with President Donald Trump to announce that he had returned to the Republican Party. A few days later, Justice called for a $15-per-ton coal subsidy from the federal government, a proposal that was hard to square with his new party’s official position against subsidies, also known as “picking winners and losers.”

The billionaire has provided few details on how he has separated himself from his coal companies while serving as governor, although members of Justice’s family reportedly were behind the lawsuit against Luttrell and Small.

Justice’s mining operations have been cited for numerous safety and other types of violations in recent years. In April, mining operation owned by Justice was cited for six safety violations following the death of a worker in February, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

According to the Pike County Circuit Court clerk’s office, the lawsuit against Luttrell was filed on July 26 and the lawsuit against Small was filed on August 1. The suit against Luttrell contends that the DNR chief interfered in a business relationship between Kentucky Fuel and another mining company that was going to do the mining and reclamation at its Bent Mountain mine in Pike County. Luttrell allegedly made “willful and malicious” comments that caused the other company to back out, causing it to not meet its reclamation obligations, according to the lawsuit.

The company attorneys contend Small “willfully and maliciously” stopped excavation at another Pike County because of a workers compensation issue, costing the company time and money.

Paul Bland, executive director of Public Justice, a nonprofit law firm that has successfully sued coal companies for environmental violations, told ThinkProgress he has never heard of someone suing a regulator for commenting on an official regulation.

“This sounds like it may be an effort by Mr. Justice to intimidate critics and to silence anyone who speaks out about government enforcement actions brought against his enterprise,” Bland said. “It would be deeply troubling if coal barons developed the ability to deter public servants from speaking truthfully about the enforcement of crucial environmental laws. This lawsuit poses a significant threat to the open and public debate our democracy needs about the obligations of polluters.”

Prior to becoming commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources in the state Energy and Environment Cabinet, Luttrell worked for more than 35 years in both underground and surface mining. Small worked nearly four decades in the mining industry before he was brought into state government by Kentucky Energy cabinet Secretary Charles Snavely, who previously worked as a coal mining executive.

Earlier this year, a group of Jim Justice-owned companies filed a lawsuit in Wise County Circuit Court in Virginia, seeking $500,000 in refunds and reductions after claims of over-billing and incorrect tax assessments by the county’s commissioner of revenue and treasurer’s offices. The commissioner of revenue and the county treasurer were also named as defendants in the case. The county is contesting the lawsuit.

Furthermore, a representative from the Jim Justice companies recently met with the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy to argue that the agency had no authority to set deadlines by which fines incurred for various violations should be paid. The department ultimately disagreed with this argument, according to Willie Dodson, the central Appalachian field coordinator for environmental group Appalachian Voices.

“Justice seems to be doubling down on his long-standing strategy of not paying what he owes, and denying any accountability for regulatory fines and other expenses incurred by his mines,” Dodson told ThinkProgress.