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Carter Wrenn: Not even a fine for Alcoa

Carter Wrenn, from the Talking About Politics blog:

It was a lopsided fight from the start: An international conglomerate marched a battalion of blue-chip lobbyists and high-priced lawyers into the arena and took aim at a gaggle of bureaucrats who didn’t want to fight and who, at best, stumbled and fumbled when they had to.

What Alcoa had its sights set on was a state water quality permit that allowed it to continue running four dams worth $400 million on the Yadkin River and, at first, the bureaucrats didn’t even resist. They said yes.

But a small rural county, Stanly County, decided the bureaucrats were wrong and threw a wrench in the works.

Next the bureaucrats marched into a courtroom arm-in-arm with Alcoa’s lawyers to whip Stanly County and they were whipping it until a wildcard — a Duke University law professor who was representing an environmental group pro-bono — asked one question that turned Alcoa’s world upside down.

Holding a batch of emails, the law professor asked the executive sitting on the witness stand in front of him whether Alcoa had misled the state about the pollution from its dams.

He’d caught Alcoa red-handed.

Because that was exactly what the emails — which had sailed back and forth between half a dozen Alcoa executives — showed had happened.

The roof fell in on Alcoa and the bureaucrats, changing sides as quickly as they could, revoked the permit.

Now you might think, after that, Alcoa’s chances of getting another permit were kaput. After all, they’d been caught lying to the bureaucrats — so how could the bureaucrats trust them?

But it didn’t work out that way.

Time passed. A new governor took office. New officials took over at the Department of Environment. Alcoa reapplied for a new permit. And, once again, the bureaucrats stumbled and fumbled. No one ever mentioned those emails. And Alcoa won. It got what it wanted. And didn’t even have to pay a fine.

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