If it had been a scene in “Atlas Shrugged,” the guy would have disappeared into the secrecy of Colorado with a shadowy figure who we would later learn to be John Galt. In real life, the story will probably be more complex. But I wonder how long it’s going to be before businesspeople really do start walking away and deciding it’s not worth doing business in America today. Or is it already happening and we just don’t know it?
The man you see in the picture is Ronnie Bryant. He operates coal mines in Alabama. I’d never heard of him until this morning, but after what I saw and heard from him, I’d say he’s a bit like a southern version of Ellis Wyatt from Ayn Rand’s novel. What I saw made an impression on me.
I was at a public hearing in an inner-city Birmingham neighborhood for various government officials to get public input on some local environmental issues. There are several hot topics, but one of the highest-profile disputes is over a proposal for a coal mine near a river that serves as a source of drinking water for parts of the Birmingham metro area. Mine operators and state environmental officials say the mine can be operated without threatening the water supply. Environmentalists claim it will be a threat.
I’m not going to take sides on that environmental issue, because I don’t know enough to stake out an informed opinion. (With most of the people I listened to today, facts didn’t seem to matter as much as emotional implications.) But Ronnie Bryant wasn’t there to talk about that particular mine. As a mine operator in a nearby area, he was attending the meeting to listen to what residents and government officials were saying. He listened to close to two hours of people trashing companies of all types and blaming pollution for random cases of cancer in their families. Several speakers clearly believe that all of the cancer and other deaths they see in their families and communities must be caused by pollution. Why? Who knows? Maybe just because it makes for an emotional story to blame big bad business. It’s hard to say.
After Bryant listened to all of the business-bashing, he finally stood to speak. He sounded a little bit shellshocked, a little bit angry — and a lot frustrated.
My name’s Ronnie Bryant, and I’m a mine operator…. I’ve been issued a [state] permit in the recent past for [waste water] discharge, and after standing in this room today listening to the comments being made by the people…. [pause] Nearly every day without fail — I have a different perspective — men stream to these [mining] operations looking for work in Walker County. They can’t pay their mortgage. They can’t pay their car note. They can’t feed their families. They don’t have health insurance. And as I stand here today, I just … you know … what’s the use? I got a permit to open up an underground coal mine that would employ probably 125 people. They’d be paid wages from $50,000 to $150,000 a year. We would consume probably $50 million to $60 million in consumables a year, putting more men to work. And my only idea today is to go home. What’s the use? I don’t know. I mean, I see these guys — I see them with tears in their eyes — looking for work. And if there’s so much opposition to these guys making a living, I feel like there’s no need in me putting out the effort to provide work for them. So as I stood against the wall here today, basically what I’ve decided is not to open the mine. I’m just quitting. Thank you.
I have no idea what Bryant will actually do. He might have made a quick emotional decision based on anger at feeling blamed for things that are frequently just normal health issues of life. He might reconsider and go ahead with his project.
The only thing I’m sure of is that what I saw today is a broken process and a sham. We all want a decent environment in which to live, but when various people at a public meeting — including federal officials and community members — talk about “environmental justice” and make it clear that their intent is to make it harder for businesses to operate, well, I can see why a businessman would decide to quit. I consider myself an environmentalist — because I want to live in a safe, secure, clean world — but what I saw isn’t reasonable concern for the environment as much as it’s an ideological agenda.
We need reasonable people to talk about how to balance various people’s property rights. (You have the right to use your property as you please, but I have a right not to be injured by it.) Even though we need a discussion, the modern equivalent of a kangaroo court that I observed today isn’t the way to go about it. It was more like a prelude to a lynching of business. If I were a businessperson or investor, I wouldn’t put the money or effort into opening new industry in this country today. I’d take my investment and jobs to somewhere they were wanted.
As Ronnie Bryant asked, “What’s the use?” Maybe Atlas really is starting to shrug.
Editor’s note: Here’s the audio clip of Ronnie Bryant speaking. The audio quality is poor since it was recorded on my iPad without any intention of broadcast or public sharing, but I’m providing it as verification of the story.