By DYLAN LOVAN
West Virginia billionaire Jim Justice made his fortune in coal and agriculture, and he is revered in his home state as the man who rescued the historic Greenbrier resort from bankruptcy.
Worth an estimated $1.7 billion, Justice is a prominent member of the tiny West Virginia community of Lewisburg, keeping a modest home and finding time to coach basketball at the local high school. He ranks No. 292 on a list of wealthiest Americans by Forbes magazine, which estimates that his personal wealth has grown by $500 million in the last year.
But his coal operations in Appalachia are struggling as business owners have filed at least nine lawsuits since late 2011 claiming they are not being paid for work at Justice mines. Still others say they are owed money but haven't yet sued.
"There is some angry, angry people," said Mark Miracle, the owner of Dynatech Electronics in Harlan, Ky. Miracle says he is owed about $150,000 for electrical mining supplies provided to three Justice mining companies more than a year ago. "They owe a lot of people a lot of money."
In an interview with The Associated Press, Justice acknowledged his companies have some debts but said they are emblematic of the coal industry's wider struggles.
"The coal business is terrible, it's just terrible and we're doing everything in our power to stay open and keep people working," Justice said. "We're one of the few (companies) that are even still working, trying to employ people and pay taxes."
Coal production in central Appalachia where Justice operates dozens of mines is expected to tumble from 235 million tons mined in 2008 to about 139 million tons by 2015, a decline of more than 40 percent, according to government numbers.
The hard times have led to sluggish business in Harlan and nearby counties, where Justice is being sued by electric, repair and maintenance companies that specialize in mine work.