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Justice Commerce pick paid $150,000 in deal with EPA

By KEN WARD JR.

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Two days after Christmas, Gov.-elect Jim Justice announced he was appointing businessman Woody Thrasher as Secretary of Commerce. Thrasher is president of the Thrasher Group, the largest engineering firm in West Virginia.

In a press release, Justice noted Thrasher is also managing partner of the White Oaks business park near Bridgeport, which the release said has brought more than 2,000 jobs to north-central West Virginia. The release noted Thrasher has served as president of the West Virginia American Council of Engineering Companies and as president of the West Virginia Society of Professional Engineers. He is currently chairman of the West Virginia University Alumni Association.

Two weeks before Justice’s announcement, federal authorities finalized a deal in which another Thrasher company, High Tech Corridor Development LLC, agreed to pay a $150,000 fine for alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act. The fine related to what federal inspectors concluded was unpermitted construction work for an extension of the White Oaks business park.

The consent agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was signed by Thrasher and was proposed by the EPA in early October. EPA regional administrator Shawn Garvin finalized it Dec. 12, following a public comment period on the agreement.

Last week, Thrasher said in an email message a permit related to the project was still being reviewed by the state Department of Environmental Protection, and it would therefore be “inappropriate to provide any comments at this time.”

Thrasher did say in the email, “it is our position that DEP has not acted in a responsible manner on this issue.” He did not elaborate.

The EPA consent agreement concerned a Clean Water Act Section 404 “dredge and fill” permit for construction of what Thrasher’s company was calling Phase II of the White Oaks Business Park Development, just off Interstate 79 near Bridgeport. The project involved construction of five noncontiguous development site pads covering about 30 acres. It also included an access road.

Thrasher’s firm needed the Clean Water Act permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because the construction would permanently impact nearly 2,600 linear feet of streams and about two-tenths of an acre of wetlands, according to a public notice issued by the Corps.

Corps officials from the agency’s Pittsburgh District approved the Thrasher permit in February 2016. On March 23, Corps officials who happened to be driving by, noticed most of the work for the project was already done, according to records and information provided by an EPA spokesman.

The spokesman said, “The site was pretty much built — the road was complete and connected to the entire development to another main road. The building pads were built, but had no buildings or parking lots on them.”

On March 25, the Corps issued a cease and desist order to High Tech Corridor Development, saying the agency “had recently become aware that the work had been completed,” but was not in compliance with the permit.

“The Corps of Engineers prefers to avoid legal action, and wishes to resolve this mater informally with you,” wrote Karen A. Kochenbach, section chief of the Corps’ regulatory branch in Pittsburgh.

Federal officials determined the work had actually been performed in July 2015, which was more than six months before the Corps approved the necessary permit, according to the EPA consent agreement. The consent agreement said, in agreement to paying the fine, High Tech Corridor Development “neither admits nor denies the specific factual allegations contained in this consent agreement.”

The Corps suspended the project’s permit, but later reinstated it after the consent agreement was reached with the EPA, according to the EPA.

DEP officials had also initially denied the project a state authorization after the issue with the Corps permit surfaced, but in late December the DEP issued an after-the-fact certification for the project.

On its website, the Thrasher Group says, “In today’s ever-changing regulatory landscape, compliance with federal and state environmental laws is critical to the success of projects.”

The website says, while “compliance can often be seen as at odds with the project vision and financial constraints,” Thrasher can serve as “technical and regulatory advocate to overcome obstacles and guide our clients through complicated policies to achieve their goals.”

“Our trained staff combines the knowledge and understanding of the complexities of federal and state regulations with positive agency relationships for permit approvals and clearances required for project completion,” the Thrasher Group website says.

A spokesman for Justice’s transition team did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Justice, a billionaire who operates coal mines among other businesses, has had his own problems with the EPA, including a late-September agreement for his companies to pay a $900,000 fine and spend more than $5 million on pollution control measures to resolve more than 23,000 permit violations between 2009 and 2014 in West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama.

Prior to that deal, Justice and his companies also entered into a deal in December 2015 with the EPA to pay $220,000 in fines to resolve allegations similar to the Clean Water Act Section 404 violations involved in the Thrasher consent agreement. That deal involved allegations that Justice’s companies had illegally built 20 dams on a Monroe County hunting and fishing preserve without first obtaining the required Clean Water Act permits.

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