BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — A company owned by the family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is paying a $925,000 fine to an Alabama health agency, after it shut down a coke plant it said was leaking polluting gases.
Under a consent decree approved Wednesday by a state court judge, Bluestone Coke will pay the fine to the Jefferson County Health Department for air pollution violations at its coking plant north of downtown Birmingham.
A coking plant heats coal at very high temperatures in what are supposed to be closed, oxygen-free ovens, cooking off impurities while not burning the coal. The process creates coke, which is used as fuel to fire blast furnaces for metal and cement makers.
Coke ovens have long polluted sections of Birmingham, once a smoky center of coal mining and steelmaking and one of Alabama's biggest cities. But increasing attention has focused on the impact of pollution in the predominantly Black neighborhoods that surround Bluestone Coke and other industrial sites. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has designated the area a Superfund site and has been excavating contaminated soil for years. Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin has drafted an unfunded $37 million plan to buy out nearby residents and improve the area.
The plant, which is more than a century old, has been shut down since October 2021. At that time, the health department declined to renew its operating permit after finding that the oven doors were leaking toxic chemicals, as well as citing other maintenance failures. The agency sued for damages, calling the plant "a menace to public health."
"There was a lot of ash and a lot of soot that people who lived near the plant said would cover their cars and homes," Pastor Thomas Wilder of nearby Bethel Baptist Church told WBRC-TV. He was one of a group that protested the plant's license renewal, seeking more stringent controls.
The settlement would allow the plant to seek a permit to reopen if Bluestone were to install two monitors to detect sulfur dioxide, have an engineer design a repair plan subject to public comment and hire an independent auditor to conduct bimonthly compliance checks for two years. Health department officials said any reopening would probably take more than a year.
The plant's maintenance failures were chronicled in an investigation by ProPublica. Steve Ruby, a lawyer for the Justice family, told ProPublica that it was unfair to call the fine too low, noting the company would face a substantial cost to meet anti-pollution requirements.
"Despite investing tens of millions of dollars in long-deferred maintenance, Bluestone was unable to fully overcome those challenges, and it ultimately concluded that only a rebuild would allow the plant to operate profitably and in compliance with environmental requirements," Ruby told ProPublica.
Ruby told West Virginia's Gazette-Mail that Bluestone Coke is reviewing rebuilding options to create a "state-of-the-art facility."
GASP, a Birmingham anti-pollution group, intervened in the case before Jefferson County Circuit Judge Patrick Ballard after it and the Southern Environmental Law Center collected ambient air samples around the plant in 2019 and 2020. It said those samples showed elevated levels of the hazardous chemicals benzene and naphthalene.
"This consent decree makes it clear that companies like Bluestone Coke cannot continue to pollute without consequences, and that starts with standards that put people — not profits — first," said GASP Executive Director Michael Hansen.
Half the fine's proceeds are to be used to benefit nearby neighborhoods, with residents encouraged to weigh in on possible projects.
The facility has had a number of owners before it was purchased by the Justice family's business interests in 2019. News outlets have reported that Justice's businesses have racked up millions in back taxes and unpaid fines, and have often been sued for unpaid bills.
Justice put his son, Jay Justice, in charge of his coal mining and farming interests when he became governor in 2016. Justice told WOWK-TV in 2021 that his son bought the plant.
"You know, in all of that, it's old. It's really, really, really, really, really old. And so the plant, they tried to operate it for awhile and everything," Justice told the TV station. "The plant was on its last legs, and the plant had to be shut down."
He added, "I think there was some lingering, I guess is the right word, you know, environmental issues that they're all over. They've now settled those environmental issues and they're doing whatever has to be done."