By John McClaughry
My very good friend John M. Mitchell died at 80 on March 28 in Rutland. He was the CEO of Swiss-owned OMYA’s North American operations, managed from Proctor, until his retirement in 2000, and a founding director of the Ethan Allen Institute in 1993.
Elsewhere I have fondly remembered John for his personal qualities and service, but here I’d like to share the message he gave in 2006 to Vermonters about the way the state of Vermont regulates companies doing business here. In this talk he described not huge new projects, like Omya’s proposed Danby Mountain mine, but recurring regulatory practices imposed on operations that had gone on for years.
“The Town of Proctor asked the Company to let the Town locate its sewage plant ponds on the place where the Company’s settling ponds were located — because it was the lowest point in town. The Company said, “sure” and moved its ponds north a few hundred feet. Like a dutiful citizen, it filed a permit application.”
“The Company had extracted water from Otter Creek since the 1880s. By use of its ponds that settled out limestone dust, the water returned to Otter Creek in the same condition. The State accused the Company of despoiling a wetland, and told it to accept a permit the details of which were unknown. So the Company closed its historic Vermont Marble Company plant, terminated 37 heads of households, and tore down part of the old plant building to lower its property taxes.”
“Around 1900 the company installed a hydro station in Center Rutland to provide power to its plant there. In due course, the plant had to be re-licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and obtain a water quality certificate from the State.”
“Among the more interesting requirements of this State permit were: one, the Company had to build a fish ladder to let fish that weren’t in the river swim upstream; two, it had to build a visitors’ center with five parking spaces and a carousel slide show; and three, it had to build a canoe portage on land it didn’t own. The Company prevailed in a Federal Appeals court, at the cost of $40,000 in legal bills.”
“By 2000 the Company had invested half a billion dollars in plant and equipment in Vermont. It asked for a permit to increase the number of trucks bringing rock from its Middlebury quarry to its Florence plant, 25 miles away via US Route 7. While Governor Dean was telling the Company’s president on the phone that he was doing everything he could to expedite the permit, his Secretary of Administration was doing everything she could to limit the number of trucks to “help solve the governor’s transportation problems on the west side of Vermont”. In the end, the State limited the number of trucks on the basis of aesthetics, and growth at the Florence factory stopped.
“You may think this is no more than a tale of woe from one big company. But this is really everyman’s story. When the government embarks on regulation that adds little or nothing to real environmental benefits; regulation that ignores the benefit of paychecks for workers and taxes that support the needs of government; regulation that strangles the enterprise that sustains a local economy — then we are all in deep trouble: the big limestone company, the farmer, the logger, the grocer, the hotel owner, the ski area, the insurance agent, the town government, all of us. That’s what the state of Vermont has done for at least the better part of the eighteen years that I’ve lived here.”
Not long after John’s retirement, the Swiss owners moved Omya’s administrative and technical personnel and payroll from Proctor to Cincinnati, Ohio.
Now I readily admit that a large limestone mining operations like Omya’s inevitably raise environmental concerns that require regulation — but that regulation must be fair, certain, and responsibly applied — not vague, arbitrary, or treating an applicant as a cash cow to underwrite some bureaucrat’s environmental wish list.
John Mitchell’s philosophy featured several important beliefs:
- A belief that liberty is fundamental to a free and progressive society
- A belief that private property is essential to the preservation of liberty
- A belief that competitive free enterprise is the greatest engine of prosperity yet devised by the human race
- A belief that government is essential to maintain order, to prescribe rules against force and fraud, and make investments in an economic infrastructure to be used by all – but that too much government, and too much redistribution of wealth from those who earned it to those who want it, will defeat our progress toward an ever more prosperous society.
I wish more Vermonters shared those beliefs.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.