James “Jim” Justice, current governor of West Virginia, and his family, have been cited by Forbes as being worth about $1.5 billion, mostly from coal mines and agribusiness. Prior to 2015, Mr. Justice was a registered Republican, but switched parties to campaign in the 2016 gubernatorial race. Seven months after his election, at a Trump rally in his home state, he announced his support for the President’s promises to the coal industry and again switched political party affiliation. His governing policies sometimes resemble the populism of Huey Long but remain decidedly business-friendly.
As a general rule, oligarchs are not fond of government regulations, especially any that can be labeled as burdensome or costly. Some few government regulations have been enacted to promote workplace safety and health, such as the Mine Safety and Health Act (1977), which consolidated all safety and health provisions under a single federal administrative agency. Under the act, mine owners and operators are responsible for the installation and maintenance of safety devices to protect workers.
Southern Coal, which moved to Roanoke in 2012, is owned by the Justice family and is managed by the son of Jim Justice. Coal companies owned by the family are spread across six states, with 12 of 23 in four Virginia counties (Dickenson, Lee, Tazewell, and Wise). Since 2014, the 23 coal companies have racked up nearly 3,000 citations for violating safety regulations, totaling nearly $4 million in fines and penalties, which remain unpaid. In 2017, National Public Radio characterized the conduct of the Justice clan as the “top mine safety delinquent” in the nation. Now, Thomas Cullen, the US Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, has filed suit in federal court to force payment of the outstanding amount.
Mining jobs declined from 92,000 in 2011 to 52,000 in 2016. Fifteen on-the-job deaths were recorded in 2017 by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which noted that West Virginia led in mine deaths in six of the last eight years. In April 2010, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine caused the death of 29 miners. The CEO owner, Don Blankenship, was convicted of a misdemeanor for violation of mine safety laws and sentenced to a year in jail. In 2018, he ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate.
Connecting the dots among coal companies, wealthy owners, government regulations, and presidential promises reflects an emerging portrait of lawlessness in the United States among would-be oligarchs. That this banditry (areas where the rule of law is ignored) is practiced by a family with the name of Justice conveys painful and ironic images of injured miners, over-burdened taxpayers, and a captive government. Preserving and protecting wealth while pursuing more profits is a model of conduct for far too many uber-rich political leaders. They are making the case for their own extinction.