Enviro groups, Justice company reach settlement over cleanup of Wise County mines

By: - January 19, 2023 5:40 pm

The Looney Ridge mine in Wise County, near the Kentucky border. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Environmental groups announced Thursday they had reached a settlement with A&G Coal Corporation, a business owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s family, over the cleanup of three coal mines in Virginia’s Wise County.

The settlement resolves a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Appalachian Voices and the Sierra Club over A&G’s failure to clean up the Looney Ridge Surface Mine #1, Sawmill Hollow #3 Mine and Canepatch Surface Mine.

The mines were first permitted in 2004 and disturbed more than 3,300 acres of land over nearly two decades, a news release on the settlement states. The three mines produced about 1.5 million tons of coal per year on average in their first decade, but production then declined steeply, and none have produced any coal since 2017.

State and federal law require that cleanup, generally known as reclamation, be done in conjunction with mining operations to ensure coal companies do not leave environmental problems behind once coal production ends. But data from the Virginia Department of Energy collected between March and July show that only just over 900 of the 3,300 acres disturbed have been regraded and revegetated, with most of the work being completed nearly a decade ago.

After being notified of several violations by the Virginia Department of Energy, A&G Coal entered into a compliance agreement with the state in 2014 requiring cleanup of the sites. The deadlines were pushed back several times, but to date the sites have not been fully reclaimed, or environmentally restored.

The terms of the settlement call for A&G to complete reclamation of the Looney Ridge Surface Mine #1 by Aug. 31, Canepatch Surface Mine by Feb. 29, 2024, and Sawmill Hollow #3 Mine by Dec. 31, 2025. 

Groups say they’ll sue Justice coal company over cleanup failures at Wise County mines

The deadlines are later than those stipulated in the compliance agreement, but they are now enforceable by a court order that attaches steeper penalties to any failure to meet interim deadlines: While the state agreement imposes penalties of up to $25,000, the newest settlement raises that amount to $37,500. Failure to meet the final deadlines will result in penalties of $75,000 at each site. 

Missing the deadlines will also trigger a prohibition on coal removal at the three sites. A&G will also fund a reclamation escrow account of up to $600,000 with some of the revenue from any coal mined at the three mines.

The commitments are noteworthy, as the mines are “self-bonded” instead of having their commitments backed by third-party reclamation bonds, for a total of just under $9 million. 

A self-bond is when a company puts up its own assets to cover reclamation costs. If the company defaults and those assets are no longer available to pay for reclamation, the cost of addressing environmental problems is passed onto taxpayers. Virginia stopped accepting self-bonds in 2016.

“We were required to grandfather those in that had been granted a self-bond when they started operating,” said Tarah Kesterson, a spokesperson for Virginia Department of Energy, by email. “Whatever amount was self-bonded at the time those A&G mines were initially permitted would likely not cover the cost of reclamation in 2023.”

Erin Savage, senior program manager at Appalachian Voices, noted that if A&G Coal forfeited its permits, “it could be very difficult for the state to actually get the bond money, especially in the case of bankruptcy.”

“This settlement represents a decade of persistent focus on holding A&G Coal accountable to the communities negatively impacted by their extraction practices,” said Terran Young, board president of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, in the news release. “During the past 10 years, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards has maintained steady pressure to ensure these A&G mining sites are properly reclaimed and prevent the cleanup costs from being dumped on Virginia taxpayers.”

A statement from A&G Coal characterized the settlement as “a collaborative partnership.”

“The Company is pleased to have reached an agreement with the Sierra Club, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and Appalachian Voices, which will allow for the final reclamation to be done in an orderly and organized fashion on the A&G properties in Virginia,” the statement read. “I believe the positive joint working relationship with the citizens’ groups will lead to a great outcome for the community and the environment.”

About 50,000 acres of surface mines in Virginia still need to be reclaimed, Savage said.

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Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics. Catch him in nature experiencing all the outdoors has to offer, and contact him at [email protected]

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