Environmental groups’ lawsuit contends TN coal mines violating federal law

By Dylan Lovan, Associated Press
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Two environmental groups say a West Virginia billionaire’s Tennessee coal mines are violating federal law by not monitoring water pollution.

The groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in East Tennessee this week against S&H Mining, saying an underground mine in Campbell County is discharging pollutants into forks of the New River. Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment, based in Knoxville, and the Sierra Club, filed the lawsuit on Thursday.

The groups also filed a notice that they intend to file additional lawsuits against S&H and two other Tennessee coal companies owned by billionaire Jim Justice, alleging that the companies’ mines are violating the Clean Water Act by not filing water pollution reports.

Steve Ball, vice president of operations for the Justice Corp. based in Roanoke, Virginia, said in an email Friday that the company denies the allegation that the recent water discharge reports for the Tennessee mines have not been submitted. Ball said he has not yet seen any of the legal filings from the environmental groups.

Justice’s Tennessee mining operations are currently idled “due to the continuing depressed market conditions,” Ball said.

The groups say the mines are releasing more iron, manganese, and suspended solids into the waterways than what their permit allows. The Justice-owned companies S&H along with National Coal and Premium Coal have not submitted the required water pollution reports since the fourth quarter of 2013, according to the group’s court filings. The reports are required as part of the Clean Water Act.

Despite the mines being idled, they can still be held liable for water quality violations, said Casey Self, a spokeswoman for Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment.

Stephanie Langley, chair of the Tennessee group’s Energy, Ecology, and Environmental Justice Committee, said the residents downstream of the three mining companies “are being subjected to an unknown amount of toxic materials being dumped into their streams and rivers.”

Justice, who owns assets totaling about $1.6 billion according to Forbes, said in an interview with the AP last year that his coal businesses were struggling. He also owns coal mines in West Virginia, Kentucky and Alabama. Justice said “you may be witnessing the death of the coal industry” and indicated at the time that he may need to close some mines.

Justice-owned mines in a handful of states have also been criticized by supply vendors who say the mines are not paying their bills. Several have filed lawsuits seeking the payments owed.

The Tennessee group along with the Sierra Club also sued National Coal in 2011 over water pollution issues at two East Tennessee mines. That suit ended with an agreement in September by the Justice-owned company to pay about $290,000 in fees and penalties and cease operations at the mines.