Among the mining executives that NPR investigated, one coal mine owner in West Virginia stands out. His mines owe nearly $2 million in overdue fines, while he, himself, is a prominent billionaire.
Jim Justice is West Virginia's richest man, with a net worth of $1.6 billion, according to Forbes. He owns 70 active mines employing 1,200 miners in five states. In addition to running his businesses, he has invested or given away more than $200 million in the last five years.
Justice used more than $175 million to buy and upgrade the struggling and historic Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. That includes $25 million for three football fields and a training center for the New Orleans Saints.
Another $25 million went to the Boy Scouts of America for the Jim Justice National Boy Scout Camp in his home state. Marshall University received $5 million; $10 million was pledged to the Cleveland Clinic.
"This is a business person who paints himself as a responsible citizen who donates to charities, but there's a whole other side of that business," says Celeste Monforton, a former federal mine safety official now at George Washington University.
As of April, Justice's delinquent coal mines had failed to pay nearly $2 million in mine safety violations, some going back seven years. Five hundred penalties were overdue, four times as many as any other delinquent mine owner. And while the mines ignored those fines, they continued to accumulate citations for safety violations that put miners at risk.
An NPR/Mine Safety and Health News analysis of federal records shows that the delinquent Justice mines committed nearly 4,000 violations while they were delinquent; 1,300 citations were classified by federal inspectors as reasonably likely to cause injury or illness if uncorrected. More than 500 were the kinds of violations that were common in mine disasters, accidents and deaths.
Congressman George Miller (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said he thinks Justice's wealth shows that his companies could afford to pay their fines.
"He's a major figure within the community, and yet he just simply chooses to ignore this," Miller said. "He's certainly exhibit A of the kind of operator that should not be allowed to continue with reckless disregard of the law."
Justice declined to be interviewed, and referred NPR to Tom Lusk, the Chief Operating Officer of Southern Coal, Justice's coal mining company.
Lusk pointed out that the amount of delinquent fines reported by government regulators fails to apply $500,000 in recent payments. Still, that left nearly $1.5 million overdue.
"An operator that's going to maintain a safe operation is faced with a dilemma of what gets paid and doesn't," Lusk says. "And the unpaid fines and citations with Southern Coal have simply been not having the available cash to settle those."
Southern Coal produced 9 million tons of coal at delinquent mines in the years its safety fines went unpaid, according to federal records. That's worth an estimated $500 million, based on average prices at the time for the states and regions involved.
Lusk says operating costs cut deep into mining income.
"There's been no windfall in Appalachia," he says. "Today, all of the operations in Appalachia, I think, are struggling as far as profit margins compared to input costs."
Still, the vast majority of mining companies, including those in Appalachia, manage to pay their fines.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration wouldn't say much about why it hasn't collected from Justice.
"We can definitely say that the Justice operations meet the criteria that we review and they are on our radar," acknowledges Jay Mattos, who directs assessments and enforcement at MSHA. "They obviously would be. They made it on to yours and believe me, they're on ours."
Seven delinquent Justice mines were targeted for a dozen of the agency's surprise blitz inspections. These mine impact inspections occur at mines with troubling safety records and persistent violations.
But MSHA hasn't done with Justice what it has done with other top delinquents: It hasn't sought a federal court order for payment.
"It isn't an automatic let's take them to court approach to life," says Joe Main, the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. "It is looking at the circumstances we have with the different mine operators and trying to figure out what is the best approach here."
Lusk said his boss insists that his 80-plus companies "stand on their own. They live and die by their own cash flow." The real question, Lusk quickly added, is "does [delinquency] compromise safety? And I can absolutely say no."
Overall, all the Justice mines combined, delinquent and non-delinquent, had a better injury rate than the national average last year, and they've sharply cut their violations rate, according to NPR's analysis.
But the delinquent mines haven't done as well. Their injury rate for the last five years is more than twice the average rate, according to a review of federal data.
Lusk insisted that Justice will bring his considerable resources to bear, when necessary.
"He is an individual that does not run from his obligations," Lusk said. "He's made it abundantly clear that there's no way we're not going to fully meet and satisfy these obligations."
After reporters from NPR and Mine Safety and Health News told Justice he would be part of this series, he instructed Lusk to begin paying off his delinquent penalties at the rate of $100,000 a month.
A more detailed report on delinquent mine safety penalties, including a list of the top 100 delinquent companies, is available from our reporting partner, Mine Safety and Health News.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
This week, we've been reporting the findings of an investigation that looks into the mining industry. Federal regulators issue citations and fines to mining companies to discourage unsafe practices. NPR has documented a failure in the regulation, which permits mining companies to ignore the fines and continue operating. One of the biggest delinquencies is a company owned by West Virginia's richest man. As Howard Berkes reports, he's a billionaire and philanthropist who gives away many more millions than his company owes.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Forbes says he's worth $1.6 billion. As of April, his coal mines owed $2 million in fines for safety violations, some going back seven years, according to federal delinquency records. But Jim Justice is best known for his most prized possession - the 200-year-old, 10,000-acre Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOWLING)
BERKES: Even the bowling alley is elegant with darkened wood and plush green walls. The indoor pool is lined with pillars like a Roman bath. And the sprawling white antebellum hotel boasts 700 luxury rooms. But it's the 70 Jim Justice coal mines with 1,200 workers in five states that interests Celeste Monforton, a former federal mine safety official now at George Washington University.
CELESTE MONFORTON: This is a business person who paints himself as a responsible citizen, who donates to charities. But there's a whole other side of that business.
BERKES: The Justice mines failed to pay more than 500 mine safety penalties, four times as many as anyone else. And while they didn't pay, these delinquent mines were cited again and again, more than 4,000 times according to our analysis of federal records - 1,300 violations were so serious, federal inspectors said they would likely cause injury or illness if left uncorrected. Our findings troubled California Congressman George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Labor Committee.
GEORGE MILLER: He's personally worth a great deal of money. He's a major figure within the community. And yet he just simply chooses to ignore this. And he's certainly exhibit A of the kind of operator that should not be allowed to continue with reckless disregard of the law.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)
BERKES: Justice didn't respond to weeks of phone calls and emails about his delinquent fines. So we showed up one night at Greenbrier East High School in Lewisburg, West Virginia, where Justice volunteers as the basketball coach.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)
BERKES: Tall and bulky with a round face and bright white hair, Justice coached the Lady Spartans from the sidelines. We didn't want to interrupt, but he came over to tell us he wouldn't answer our questions.
JIM JUSTICE: One of the guys that is my chief operating officer, he knows everything about what you want to talk about. And I know it, but he knows it better than I.
BERKES: You're the owner. You're the boss. That's why we want to talk to you.
JUSTICE: But he has to talk to you.
BERKES: We'll talk to both of you.
JUSTICE: I can get him to be able to talk to you tomorrow, but I cannot talk to you at all. I just can't.
We eventually sat down with Tom Lusk, the chief operating officer of Justice's Southern Coal corporation. Lusk says the company and the industry have had a tough time in the last six years.
TOM LUSK: An operator's going to maintain a safe operation is faced with the dilemma of what gets paid and doesn't. And the unpaid fines and citations with Southern Coal have simply been not having the available cash to settle those.
BERKES: Federal records show that Justice's delinquent coal mines produced more than 9 million tons in the years they didn't pay their fines. That's $500 million worth, according to average prices in the same areas reported by the Energy Department. Lusk says operating costs cut deep.
LUSK: There's been no windfall in Appalachia today. All of the operations, I think, in Appalachia are struggling as far as profit margins compared to input cost. It's not there.
BERKES: Still, the vast majority of mining companies, including those in Appalachia, do manage to pay their fines according to federal delinquency data. Justice himself has plenty of money. In 2009, he promised $150 million to buy and upgrade the Greenbrier Resort. Two years later, he pledged $10 million to the Cleveland Clinic, plus $25 million for a National Boy Scout reserve in West Virginia, where he was introduced to thousands of scouts last year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I want to give a special thanks to the man in the white hat standing there. That's Jim Justice. You're sitting in the home of the Jim Justice National Boy Scouts Scout Camp. Let's welcome Jim.
BERKES: Then it was $5 million for Marshall University. And this year, back at the Greenbrier, Justice paid for three football fields and a training center for the New Orleans Saints. The team celebrated in a promotional video.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEW ORLEANS SAINTS PROMOTIONAL VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Total price tag? About $25 million. Justice says they're rolling out the red carpet for the Saints in every way possible.
JUSTICE: It is a fabulous opportunity for West Virginia.
BERKES: That's more than $200 million in philanthropy and investments while his coal mines had unpaid safety fines reaching $2 million. Tom Lusk says his boss treats each of his businesses as independent operations.
LUSK: He owns, probably, 80-plus companies. And one of the things he requires in those companies is that they stand on their own. They live and die by their own cash flow. And the real issue, where we begin this conversation, is does it compromise safety? And I can absolutely say no.
BERKES: We wanted to test that claim by visiting Justice's underground coal mines with troubling safety records. Lusk refused, saying he'd been burned before by taking reporters underground. Instead, he sent us to a surface coal mine, the company's Tams mountaintop removal mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia, with safety chief Pat Graham.
PAT GRAHAM: And every time we direct one of these employees to do his job, it's always safety first. If it's not safe, it's not going to end up productive.
BERKES: Miners we spoke with, who were told in advance we were coming, had the same safety message. We stopped to watch a massive front-end loader scoop up piles of crushed coal and pour them into a dump truck.
This surface mine has a relatively good safety record. And overall, the Justice mines had injury rates last year below the national average, according to NPR's analysis of federal injury data. But the numbers for the delinquent Justice mines aren't so good. Their injury rate for the last 5 years is more than twice the average rate. Jay Mattos supervises enforcement at the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
JAY MATTOS: We can definitely say that the Justice operations meet the criteria that we review and they are on our radar. They obviously would be. They made it onto yours and believe me, they are on ours.
BERKES: Seven of the Justice delinquent mines have been hit with surprise blitz inspections that target mines with poor safety records. But the agency hasn't sought federal court orders for payment, according to court and agency records. Joe Main is assistant secretary of labor for Mine Safety and Health.
JOE MAIN: It isn't an automatic let's-take-them-to-court approach to life. It is looking at the different circumstances we have with the different mine operators and trying to figure out what is the best approach here.
BERKES: Whatever the approach, the mine safety agency hasn't been able to force the Justice mines to pay, even though he's a billionaire. The agency also doesn't have the authority to shut down his or any other mines until fines are paid. Justice executive Tom Lusk complains that Southern Coal had paid half a million dollars years ago, but didn't get credit until recently. He says Justice will eventually pay the rest.
LUSK: He is an individual that does not run from his obligations. And that's the case here. He's made it abundantly clear that there's no way we're going to not fully meet and satisfy these obligations.
BERKES: And after we made it clear what we were going to report, Lusk told NPR that he was instructed to pay off the delinquent fines at the rate of $100,000 a month. Howard Berkes, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.