Birmingham coke plant owned by West Virginia governor has no license, multiple health violations

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December 25 2021 12:00 am

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Amid an ongoing court battle between the Jefferson County Board of Health, GASP and Bluestone Coke, the Birmingham plant has currently halted production.

A spokesperson for the Jefferson County Department of Health told CBS 42 on Monday the plant had switched to a “cold idle” after we reached with questions about why Bluestone Coke didn’t appear to be active.

Last month, Bluestone Coke officials said in a news release the plant was going into a “hot idle” until April 2022, while repairs are made to the facility to increase safety. According to court documents, a “hot idle” is when a coke plant isn’t producing coke, but the coke battery continues to be heated. In a “cold idle,” coke is also not being produced, and the plant’s furnaces and gas are shut off.

Bluestone Coke uses coal to produce foundry coke, which is used in the metal-making industry.

The process of heating the coal can produce a significant amount of air emissions, which is why plants like Bluestone are monitored and regulated by the Jefferson County Department of Health.

Neighbors in North Birmingham, where the Bluestone plant operates, have been reporting health concerns surrounding this plant since it was bought by Bluestone Resources in 2019, and even before then, when the plant was owned by other companies.

“Residents have been telling us for years about the health impacts ranging from asthma attacks to cancer and death,” said Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution’s Executive Director Michael Hansen.

Court documents show GASP was able to successfully intervene into JCDH’s civil suit against Bluestone Coke. The environmental justice organization hopes to help North Birmingham residents and protect their health.

Eric Herrod, who lives directly across the street from Bluestone Coke, told CBS 42 soot from the plant’s emissions covers his cars. He’s even more concerned about what it’s doing to his lungs.

“I don’t know what it is,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m breathing, all that contamination.”

Amanda Doctor just moved to North Birmingham in June. She told CBS 42 soon after she moved in, she noticed her and her grandson, who both have asthma, were having a hard time breathing.

“My asthma is kicking in more. I have to be on my breathing machine every night now,” she explained.

According to court documents, the Jefferson County Department of Health recorded numerous violations over the last few years at the plant. The regulations put in place by the department are meant to protect the air quality and people’s health.

Back in August, JCDH attempted to deny Bluestone a permit that allows them to operate due to the health violations, but a hearing officer granted Bluestone’s motion to stay. That allows Bluestone to operate until a final decision is made at a court hearing. So while Bluestone’s operations are currently on pause, according to court documents, they are still technically allowed to operate in the meantime.

In addition to the health concerns, CBS 42 confirmed Bluestone Coke currently does not have a business license. Over the phone, both the Jefferson County Revenue Department and the City of Birmingham Tax and Licensing Office said Bluestone Coke does not have an active business license.

CBS 42 attempted to contact West Virginia’s Governor, Jim Justice, who owns Bluestone Resources, dozens of times by phone and email. All of our requests have so far been ignored or denied. In October, we were able to join one of the governor’s Zoom press conferences, but we were removed from the press conference before we had a chance to ask questions.

CBS 42 spoke with Wall Street Journal finance reporter, Julie Steinberg, who has written several stories over the past year about Gov. Justice’s finances related to his coal business.

She explained the Wall Street Journal first started looking into Gov. Justice’s finances while working on a story about Greensill Capital, a now bankrupt supply chain finance firm. Steinberg told CBS 42 Gov. Justice’s Bluestone Resources was a client of the firm and took out around $850 million in loans from Greensill.

“The governor has interests across Southern U.S. so there’s just a lot of different company names and a lot of different interests,” Steinberg said. “The governor is required to disclose many of those interests and by our last count there was more than 90 on his business ethics form.”

Steinberg went on to say it’s difficult to determine what Bluestone’s current value is as a company. She explained the company’s plan was to increase production at some of its facilities to help pay back debts.

Gov. Justice’s son, Jay Justice, is the CEO of Bluestone Resources, according to his website. Requests to interview him or any other Bluestone officials were also unsuccessful.

JCDH and the City of Birmingham also denied CBS 42 an interview, citing ongoing litigation.

CBS 42 questioned Governor Kay Ivey, to see if she is aware of what Gov. Justice is doing in her state.

“Well I certainly don’t have many details on that,” Ivey said. “Best you check with the company.”

CBS 42 followed up with Ivey, asking if she thinks he should be held accountable.

“Everyone should be held accountable,” she said.

Currently, there are two separate cases involving Bluestone Coke. According to court documents, there is an administrative action, concerning the Jefferson County Department of Health’s permit denial. A hearing for that is scheduled for December 8. According to new court documents sent to us by GASP, Bluestone is attempting to move that hearing date, with the support of JCDH.

The other case is a civil suit against Bluestone Coke. JCDH initially filed that case, and GASP later intervened. JCDH is seeking civil penalties for each of Bluestone’s violations, according to court documents. A trial is currently scheduled for November 2022.

During a press conference on West Virginia’s COVID-19 response Wednesday, Mark Curtis from Nexstar sister station WOWK asked Gov. Justice about Bluestone. Here is his full comment:

“First of all, I’ve gotten to say just this. I’ve never been to the plant. I’ve never seen the plant. We’ve got to understand that… this is what I’ve been trying to tell everybody all along. My job is to be your governor. We’ve owned that plant for a good while. That plant had been bankrupt, for all practical purposes, bankrupt two different times prior to us getting it and with all of that and everything on top of that, it is very, very, very, very, very old. I can tell you, Mark (Curtis), without any doubt, all you’ve got to do is just follow around and just watch what goes on absolutely with any and every obligation that we’ve ever had, we’re going to fulfill. Absolutely, we’re going to continue to do the right stuff all along… and I don’t have time to even think about being able to tell you the whole story if I knew the whole story and there’s a tremendous amount of this that I don’t have any idea about. But with all of that, my family will do the right stuff. That’s all there is to it. We’ll do the right stuff and I do know at that plant, two bankruptcies in a row before us and everything and old plant and my job and my focus is these 92 people we lost (to COVID-19). That’s all there is to it right here. This is my job. My job is the health and wellbeing of this state. That’s what I’m going to do, but my family will wholeheartedly always do the right stuff. We’ve done it and done it and done it and done it. How many businesses have we taken over…saved all the employment and they’re thriving and continuing right on? You’ve got the situation right now with Bluestone, Bluestone in Wyoming in McDowell County. What was Bluestone in Wyoming in McDowell County doing two or three years ago? You were absolutely with the Russians, they were leaving town, leaving reclamation liabilities, leaving the unions stiffed, the retirement fund and everything with the unions stiffed, leaving venders, leaving taxes owed to McDowell County and Wyoming County and everything else. What did we do, Mark (Curtis)? What did we do? It’s exactly what we do. All you’ve got to do is just follow it along and you’ll see over and over and over, you’ll see our family at the end of the day cleaning a lot of messes up that a lot of people left and you take a lot of flack because you are the governor and you’re, per se, the ‘billionaire’ and everything else, but you take a lot of flack along the way, but it doesn’t matter to me. We’re going to do the right stuff and that’s what our family does and that’s what we’re going to continue to do and I’m going to first and foremost look after these 92 people as best as I possibly can in the state of West Virginia and that’s what we’re doing.”

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice

Stay with CBS 42 for more on this developing story.

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