By Chuck Strouse
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Tony Clemente, Brant's predecessor as director of WASD, says contamination isn't the only concern. If state regulators or the federal Environmental Protection Agency determine that water from the rock pits is close enough to the wellfields to "influence" them, even if they aren't actually contaminated by a deadly bacteria, the county will be forced to update its facilities. "We are real close to that happening," Clemente notes. "From a public-health standpoint, the county would be better off updating the treatment facilities now."
The longer the county waits to act, the more costly it will be. Also, Clemente adds, there aren't many sources of money for upgrading the facilities. If the rock miners aren't willing to pay some of the cost, taxpayers will have to carry the burden through higher water bills.
As his staff drafted the ordinance, Brant alerted the rock miners, hoping they might be willing to work with the county on a plan to help pay for improvements to the water-treatment facilities. "They reacted very negatively," Brant sighs.
The rock-mining industry is notorious for playing political hardball. In 2000, after receiving numerous complaints from homeowners near the rock pits, the county commission tried to regulate how often miners could use blasting equipment. As county officials made a good-faith effort to mediate a compromise between the rock miners and homeowners, who claimed their houses were being damaged, the miners secretly went to Tallahassee and had the laws rewritten. As a result control of blasting was transferred from individual counties to the state fire marshal.
As soon as the rock miners learned of Brant's proposed ordinance, they dispatched one of their top lobbyists, Clifford Schulman of the law firm Greenberg Traurig, to quash it. On July 23 County Manager Shiver met with Schulman, Brant, and DERM director John Renfrow.
Schulman was adamantly opposed to the proposal. He argued it wasn't fair to tax the rock miners for a contamination problem that might never occur. "Bill Brant was being overly cautious," Schulman told me earlier this month. "He was concerned that something in the future mighthappen. We thought that was unfair and uncalled for. To pick on one industry like that isn't right." The rock miners are in favor of "continued study" on the subject as well as testing to make sure the county's ground water isn't contaminated or influenced by the surface water from the lakes created inside rock pits.
As soon as the July 23 meeting ended, Shiver decided to shelve the proposed ordinance even before it reached the commission.
Does Bill Brant still believe the ordinance is a good idea? When I pressed him on that question, he responded: "Yes. I still think it is necessary."
Steve Shiver is fond of boasting that as a manager his goal is to empower employees by involving them more significantly in the decision-making process. This episode shows once again that Shiver's words are hollow.
Rather than rely on the advice of his professional staff, Shiver decided to substitute his own judgment and side instead with a powerful industry and its well-heeled lobbyist. If the manager were truly interested in empowering his staff members, he would support their recommendations rather than try to micromanage their departments. Shiver's actions only served to undercut and weaken WASD and DERM in the eyes of an industry they must regulate.
I liked Schulman's characterization of Bill Brant. I wantthe man responsible for maintaining the safety of my drinking water to be "overly cautious." And I'd like to think our county manager would be equally cautious. Unfortunately Shiver is willing to gamble that there won't be a problem, at least not while he's around. (By way of comparison, Shiver's predecessor, Merrett Stierheim, openly opposed the rock miners' efforts to acquire from the Army Corps of Engineers the permits to expand their operations.)
It will be interesting to see how county commissioners react. The possible contamination of our water supply and the need for improving existing water-treatment facilities are major public-policy issues. Was this really a matter Steve Shiver should have decided by himself after one meeting with a lobbyist? Or was this a decision that should have been made by the county commission, as the elected representatives of the people? At the very least, shouldn't commissioners have been given the opportunity to discuss the proposal?
Barbara Lange, a Sierra Club official who has been studying the threats posed by the rock-mining industry, says she isn't surprised to learn that Shiver would run interference for a powerful group like the rock miners. "I hope this opens the eyes of some commissioners and that they deal with the issue before it becomes a crisis," Lange says. "I hope it acts as a wake-up call to the commission. At the next commission meeting, I hope one of them asks Bill Brant and John Renfrow to step forward and have them explain the threat to our water supply and answer questions about why they thought this ordinance was a good idea."
Lange argues that when it comes to guaranteeing the safety of the county's water supply, everyone is an environmentalist. "Politicians need to know that the public is watching," she adds. "People really care about their drinking water."