Mining Industry Shuts Out Meddlesome Lawyer

In a bleak meeting room inside a dull government building, the safety of your drinking water is being debated in a scientific language you likely don't understand. And one of the people with the deepest knowledge about the issue isn't allowed to attend.

As New Times reported in March ("Poisoned Well," by Isaiah Thompson), attorney Paul Schwiep and Sierra Club activist Barbara Lange are like the Shaggy and Scooby of Miami-Dade water-quality protection: pesky rabble-rousers who won't stop meddling in the villain's grand plan. They brought to public attention that the county's biggest well field was contaminated with benzene, a cancer-causing chemical. And with the help of a since-fired renegade director of the county's Water and Sewer Department, they connected the contamination to massive rock mines surrounding the well field.

Schwiep and Lange were first booted from a public rock-mining-related meeting in 2002, when an Army Corp of Engineers administrator excluded them. This was cited by U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler in his 2007 ruling that halted mining closest to the wells. An appeals court has since squashed the decision, and the miners have resumed work.

Earlier this month, Schwiep caught wind of another meeting that would include mining reps and government agencies. The miners would be trying to convince government regulators there's no threat of contamination.

As soon as he walked into a meeting room at WASD headquarters in Coral Gables, moderator Leah Oberlin asked, "Are there any attorneys present?"

Schwiep raised his hand.

Oberlin informed him that no lawyers were permitted. The rock miners hadn't brought theirs, she said by way of explanation.

After a few minutes of consternation, Schwiep left.

Curiously, a woman who also identified herself as a lawyer was allowed to stay. She claimed her attendance wasn't related to her practice.

Schwiep is still stewing. "It's arguably illegal," he says. "Rock mining executives can be there, but the opposition can't be represented by a lawyer? I guess they're just afraid. They want to kick people out of the room that might know the hard question to ask."

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Gus Garcia-Roberts