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Judge Finds WV Governor’s Coal Company Liable for Pollution Violations

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A federal judge ruled that Bluestone Coal Corp. will have to pay penalties and cleanup costs for leaking selenium from mines into McDowell County streams. (Wikimedia Commons)
A federal judge ruled that Bluestone Coal Corp. will have to pay penalties and cleanup costs for leaking selenium from mines into McDowell County streams. (Wikimedia Commons)
July 31, 2020

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - After a group of environmental activists filed a lawsuit last year, a federal judge ruled this week that a coal company owned by the family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is liable for selenium pollution discharged into waters near one of its coal mines.

Bluestone Coal Corporation had more than 3,000 violations of federal Clean Water Act standards at the Red Fox Surface Mine in McDowell County from July 2018 to March of this year, according to Cindy Rank - mining committee chair with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, one of four groups involved in the suit.

She applauded the judge's decision, and said it's significant because more coal companies need to be held accountable for destructive water pollution emitted from their mines.

"There still are so many out there that continue to contribute this kind of pollution that hopefully the other companies will come to their senses," said Rank. "And either do something to correct it or with the agency to force them to do something."

She said the next step is a trial that will determine penalties and measures Bluestone Coal has to take to clean up the site. The company has asked for a delay, which the judge granted, and now the trial will be held in September.

Data submitted by the company to regulators showed 60 violations of its monthly average limit for selenium and 78 violations of its daily maximum limit for the chemical over the past two years.

Rank said selenium is a dangerous chemical found in coal that accumulates in the body. It's been linked to growth deformities and reproductive failures in fish.

"Over time, it deforms what they call fry, the baby fish," said Rank. "If you see pictures of them, they have crooked spines and eyes in the wrong place. It destroys them."

Bluestone already has paid more than $250,000 in penalties for selenium violations from July 2018 to June 30, 2019. It's estimated the maximum civil penalty for the company under the Clean Water Act could top $160 million.

Disclosure: West Virginia Highlands Conservancy contributes to our fund for reporting on Energy Policy, Public Lands/Wilderness. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Diane Bernard, Public News Service - WV