Alabama plant owned by W.V. governor’s family fined $925,000

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — 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. Bluestone Coke has agreed to pay the fine to Jefferson County Health Department for violating air pollution regulations at its coking plant in north Birmingham. This consent decree was approved Wednesday by a state judge.

A coking plant heats coal at high temperatures in ovens that are closed and free from oxygen. This allows the coal to be cooked off any impurities without burning it. Coke is formed from the process, which is used to fuel blast furnaces for metal- and cement-makers.

Coke ovens polluted large areas of Birmingham, once a bustling center for steelmaking and coal mining. It was once one of the largest cities in Alabama. However, increasing attention has been paid to the effects of pollution in predominantly Black neighborhoods surrounding Bluestone Coke and other industrial locations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the area as a Superfund site, and has been excavating contaminated ground for years. Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin has drafted an unfunded $37 million plan to buy out nearby residents and improve the area.

The more than 100-year-old plant has been closed since October 2021. After finding that the oven doors were leaking toxic chemicals and other maintenance failures, the health department refused to renew the operating permit. 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 part of a protest group that sought more stringent controls after the plant’s renewal of its license.

The settlement would allow Bluestone to apply for a permit to reopen the plant if it were to install two monitors that detect sulfur dioxide, have an engineer create a plan of repair and hire an independent auditor to conduct two-year-long compliance checks. Officials from the Health Department stated that a reopening of the plant would likely take more than one year.

ProPublica’s investigation revealed the plant’s maintenance problems. ProPublica’s investigation into the plant’s maintenance failures revealed that Steve Ruby, a lawyer representing the Justice family, said it was unfair to consider the fine too low. He also noted that the company would have to pay a significant amount to comply with 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 informed West Virginia’s Gazette-Mail about Bluestone Coke’s plans to rebuild the facility. “

GASP was a Birmingham anti-pollution organization that intervened in the case against Jefferson County Circuit Judge Patrick Ballard. It and the Southern Environmental Law Center had taken ambient air samples around Bluestone Coke’s plant in 2019, and 2020.. These samples contained high levels of benzene, naphthalene, and other hazardous chemicals.

“This consent order makes it clear that Bluestone Coke can no longer pollute without consequences. It starts with standards that place people, not profits first,” stated Michael Hansen, Executive Director of GASP.

Half of the fine’s proceeds will be used to benefit nearby communities, with residents encouraged and encouraged to participate in any possible projects.

The facility was owned by a variety of people before it was bought by the Justice family’s interests in 2019.. News outlets reported that Justice’s businesses had racked up millions of back taxes and unpaid penalties and were often sued for unpaid bills.

Justice appointed Jay Justice to manage his coal mining and farming operations when he was elected governor in 2016.. Justice stated to WOWK-TV in 2021, that his son purchased the plant.

” It’s not new. It’s really, really really, really really, really really, really old. Justice stated that they tried to operate the plant for a while and it was not working out. “The plant was in its last legs and had to be shut down.” He added, “I believe there was some lingering. I guess that’s the right word. You know, environmental issues that they have all over.” They’ve now settled those environmental issues and they’re doing whatever has to be done.”

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