Billionaire coal company and resort owner Jim Justice is in a war of words with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection over an illegally built dam at a gated golf course community, a 17-foot-high structure that regulators say presents a potentially deadly flooding hazard to hundreds of drivers.
The Beckley Register-Herald first reported the dispute, citing a recent letter Justice sent to property owners. He said the DEP plans to order that the Mallard Lake Dam at The Resort at Glade Springs be raised 40 feet, along with the main access road to the 600-home Glade Springs Village.
Justice says the project could cost $9.2 million and could prompt his company, resort owner Emco Glade Springs Hospitality, to transfer responsibility for the dam and road to the Property Owners Association.
“That is a choice of last resort for us,” Justice wrote, “as we would prefer to advance our common interest and together convince WVDEP to abandon its current imprudent action.”
The DEP says it never issued an order to elevate the dam, nor did it estimate any costs. Rather, spokeswoman Kathy Cosco says the DEP gave Emco multiple options last year to bring the dam into compliance with state law. That could include raising, lowering or removing it.
“We don’t dictate to them what they should do,” said Brian Long, manager of the state’s Dam Safety Program.
A January 2012 letter from DEP’s Division of Water and Waste Management declares the dam subject to the Dam Control and Safety Act, and orders Emco to either apply to have it certified or to submit engineering plans to change or remove it. The state also demanded emergency-response and maintenance plans.
All were due in April 2012, but Long says Emco has yet to comply.
Justice, who hired his own engineers to review what his letter calls “frivolous” DEP demands, did not return a telephone message from The Associated Press.
His letter says that if Glade Springs were to close the road, drivers would have to use the rear entrance, Pluto Road. Justice contends that would mean a 30-minute delay and more traffic congestion.
The property owners’ group didn’t immediately return telephone or email messages.
Justice also told the newspaper “many agencies in the state target successful people and hinder business opportunities.” He said “ridiculous, absurd actions have driven away many good people” and deterred others from locating here.
“Hiding behind this as a safety matter is absurd,” he told the paper, and “trying to scare people when they know better is morally wrong.”
Cosco declined to comment on those remarks.
Worth an estimated $1.7 billion, Justice ranks No. 292 on Forbes magazine’s list of wealthiest Americans. The magazine estimates that his personal wealth has grown by $500 million in the last year. But his Appalachian coal operations are struggling and business owners have filed at least nine lawsuits since late 2011 claiming they are not being paid for work at Justice mines. He says that’s emblematic of larger industry and economic struggles.
The DEP has requested engineering plans for the Glade Springs dam, but on June 25, Leslie Vincent of Justice’s Southern Coal Corp. instead sent a letter proposing a plan to deal with potential for water to come over the top.
Vincent suggested sensor systems with mechanical or pressure triggers that trigger alarms in the nearby guard house and at resort offices. Workers would erect flashing warning signs and barricades to keep drivers off the road.
But in a July response, Long deemed that insufficient. Among other things, he said, it wouldn’t protect people if power fails. He also said overtopping can occur after dark, and motorists could unknowingly drive into high water. An erosion channel crossing the crest could go undetected, he said, and seepage could create sinkholes.
Long said the dam has a storage capacity of 100 acre-feet, or the equivalent of 32.7 million gallons of water. That type of dam is legally limited to 6 feet in height and 50 acre-feet of volume.
It’s unclear who built the dam or when, but Long said it’s more than 10 years old. The DEP discovered and inspected it in 2008, but Cosco said further action was delayed as the department’s resources were overwhelmed by other obligations.
Since 2010, the DEP has issued 31 orders _ 27 of those requiring dam owners to submit applications for certification, Cosco said. Sixteen were issued since January 2012.
In his letter to property owners, Justice mocked the DEP’s assertion that the dam must be able to withstand an inundation of 27.5 inches of rain in six hours.
“Please, if this ever occurs, don’t drive anywhere,” he wrote. “Just start walking for the highest mountain.”
But Long notes that is the Probable Maximum Precipitation standard, set not by DEP but by the National Weather Service.
“That standard is in use by dam safety programs around the country,” he said.
Cosco said the DEP will continue to try to talk with Emco, but “ultimately, down the road, if no action by the owner takes place, the state has no choice but to take a civil action.”