By Sarah Mansheim
It came out of the blue in June of 2009. As The Greenbrier teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, rumors had been rampant as to the resort’s future, and it looked like Marriott was slated to purchase the property from CSX. Then, out of nowhere, local billionaire Jim Justice announced he had purchased the resort and its sister company, the Greenbrier Sporting Club.
Many in the community wondered who Justice was, and five years later, the man behind The Greenbrier remains a mystery.
Identified by Forbes magazine as the richest man in West Virginia with a net worth of $1.6 billion, Justice owns more than The Greenbrier and other resorts around the region. He also owns Greenbrier Farms, a 44-arcre kitchen garden planted just for The Greenbrier, along with industrial-sized farms up and down the east coast. He coaches the boys and girls basketball teams at Greenbrier East High School. He also owns 71 coal mines in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama and Tennessee.
Publicly, Justice presents himself as a folksy, up-from-the-bootstraps, down-home kind of guy. During press conferences, he tells awkward jokes at his own expense, references the movie “Talladega Nights,” and repeatedly states he just wants the rest of the world to see, through the Greenbrier Classic and its concert series, the Saints training camp, and his various charity projects, how wonderful West Virginia truly is.
Last week, Justice appeared in headlines across the state as his fourth annual toy drive, Dream Tree for Kids, launched. The Dream Tree for Kids toy drive has raised millions of dollars worth of toys for needy children, and once again, folks are encouraged to join him and his family in sharing in the season of giving by purchasing toys at The Greenbrier’s children’s store, Fizzy’s Land Of Oz, which will then be wrapped and placed under a tree in the hotel’s lobby staircase and later distributed throughout West Virginia. Those who do not contribute by purchasing a gift are invited to write a check to Old White Charities. Old White Charities also handles The Greenbrier Classic’s Badges for Charities program, which has raised over $150,000 for local organizations such as Children’s Home Society, Carnegie Hall, First Tee and others.
This newspaper published the press release on the front page of our November 15 edition.
But what about the out-of-state media? While this newspaper, the Register Herald and the Charleston Gazette have focused on golf tournaments, training camps and charity programs, news organizations in Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, along with national news organizations such as the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, have focused more on Justice as a coal giant who doesn’t pay his fines.
Last week, while West Virginia media outlets reported on Justice’s toy charity, National Public Radio (NPR) published a story detailing Justice’s failure to pay his Mine Safety and Health Association (MSHA) fines. This story highlighted a joint investigation between NPR and Mine Safety and Health News (MSHN) and its findings that “mine operators who fail to pay their MSHA fine have an injury rate 50 percent higher than mines that pay their fines.”
According to the report, Horace Garrison Hill, controller and owner of D&C Mining Corp. in Kentucky, is the top delinquent controller, owing MSHA $4,354,975, the most at a single mine. Number two is a group of controllers–John D. North, Ralph Napier, Connie Napier and Jack Ealy–who owe a combined $2,960,815 over eight mines. Justice was listed as the third most delinquent, owing over $2 million in fines spread over 71 mines.
During the same news cycle, newspapers across the United States blasted the headline that former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship had been indicted for his role in the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 people. Blankenship faces 31 years in the penitentiary. According to the indictment, Blankenship’s “routine violation of key federal mine safety rules” prior to the April 2010 explosion makes him culpable for the explosion and the deaths of his employees.
None of Justice’s mines have had any deaths; however, according to the NPR/ MSHN investigation, Justice is the third highest delinquent coal mine controller, owing $2,148,401 in fines to the MSHA, and injury rates in Justice’s delinquent mines over the last five years are more than twice the average rate. The report states that through March of this year, the delinquent Justice mines committed nearly 4,000 violations; 1,300 citations were classified by federal inspectors as S & S (significant and substantial), and more than 500 violations were “the kind of violations that are common in mine disasters, accidents and deaths.” During that same time period, those same delinquent mines produced $500 million in coal.
The NPR/MSHN investigation notes that during the time Justice was racking up mining violations, he was purchasing The Greenbrier, hosting The Greenbrier Classic, donating $25 million to the Boy Scouts of America and building the $25 million NFL training camp.
NPR tried to reach Justice, and was put in contact with his COO Tom Lusk, who insisted that $500,000 has been paid toward the fines; upon hearing that NPR was doing a story on the delinquencies, Justice told Lusk to start paying $100,000 per month toward his fines.
Locally, Justice is most widely known as owner of The Greenbrier, and his impact on tourism bears more weight here than his coal operations do. The Greenbrier is a major destination in an area that depends heavily on tourism dollars. From August 2013 to July 2014, The Greenbrier was responsible for $1,150731.35 in hotel/motel tax funds with half the funds going to the Greenbrier County Commission Arts and Recreation account and half going to the Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Additionally, Lewisburg businesses reported a strong upsweep in business last summer during the New Orleans Saints training camp, as sports fans came to Greenbrier County to watch the football team get ready for the regular season. Those fans also visited Lewisburg’s restaurants and businesses, spreading their tourism dollars around.
Five years into his ownership of The Greenbrier, Justice has rebranded the historic resort into a viable sports destination and revitalized a hotel property that many had felt was past its prime. His holiday charities have brought toys to children across the region who may have not received anything at all, and his Badges for Charity golf tournament initiative has raised money for several local organizations, all done under the umbrella of West Virginians doing good for ourselves and others. But also, over the past five years, his mines have racked up violations along the coal belt, one mistake short of a disaster on any given day. Which leads us to ask of the West Virginia media, can we talk about Jim?
The Mountain Messenger repeatedly reached out to Justice to comment on his charities and his coal mine violations. As of press time, Justice did not respond.