by Max Blau
The ultrawealthy family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is looking to reopen a shuttered industrial plant that for decades emitted chemicals that have harmed historically Black neighborhoods in Birmingham, Alabama. But the family faces a series of new regulatory and financial hurdles — including a push by local regulators to throw the governor’s son in jail over thousands of dollars in unpaid penalties connected to the plant’s pollution.
The century-old facility, which burns coal to make coke, a key ingredient for manufacturing steel, was the subject of a 2022 ProPublica investigation that showed how the family’s company and the plant’s past owners repeatedly failed to make necessary repairs. Without timely maintenance, Bluestone Coke released more cancer-causing chemicals into the air breathed by residents of three surrounding communities on Birmingham’s north side. In 2021, local regulators declined to renew Bluestone’s permit because of its repeated violations of air pollution regulations, but the plant kept operating as Bluestone appealed the decision. Months later, the company idled its coke ovens because of major equipment problems.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed changes to the way toxic air pollution is controlled at coke plants. It would require Bluestone and other companies to install monitors along the fence lines of coke plants to detect whether high levels of benzene, a cancer-causing air pollutant found in coke oven emissions, are wafting into surrounding communities. If the monitors detect high levels of benzene, plant operators would have to identify the source of the pollution leaks and submit plans to bring the facility back into compliance.
EPA spokesperson Shayla Powell said in a statement that the rule would help to address “concerns by stakeholders about ground-level emissions affecting nearby communities.”
The proposal seeks to reduce the disproportionate amounts of coke plant pollution released in Black communities from Alabama to Indiana. For decades before Bluestone acquired the plant in 2019, nearby residents were exposed to some of the nation’s highest levels of contaminants in the air and soil. The air pollution had discolored the sides of houses, decimated property values and sickened residents. In recent years, a local environmental group called the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution, or GASP, has monitored the air outside the Bluestone plant site and detected benzene levels high enough to elevate cancer risk for nearby residents.
The proposed regulation complicates the Justice family’s plans to reopen the plant. The company’s intended overhaul — estimated by experts to cost more than $150 million — would become even more expensive under the agency’s proposal.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has vowed that his family would “do the right stuff” regarding the problems at the Bluestone Coke plant. (Justin Merriman/Stringer/Getty Images)
Adrienne Lee, an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said that the EPA had failed to comply with key requirements of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 — and that failure, according to environmental advocates, enabled coke plants to delay renovations to their facilities. In 2019, the Sierra Club, GASP and two other environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the EPA for not having conducted reviews of coke oven emission standards since 2005. A federal judge later ordered the EPA to finish its review of coke oven regulations by May 2024.