Brown brothers' saga reveals regulatory flaws

Published Aug. 18, 2002

Tri-City Herald

Eastern Washington - Have regulators, usually derided as heavy-handed bureaucrats, become, in actuality, impotent?

The Herald's Bitter Harvest series last month that chronicled the exploits of the Columbia Basin's Brown brothers and their empire built on mint begged the question. We haven't seen any evidence since that suggests differently.

The stories, in reporter Mike Lee's words, told of how Mike and Gerald "Spud" Brown of Royal City have dodged full accountability for damage they've done and public resources they have squandered through pollution, illegal use of public land and demands for an inordinate amount of attention from enforcement agencies.

The brothers' combined operations in Washington and Northeastern Oregon are among the largest in the region. And their misdeeds, to hear regulators talk of them, are legendary. But the transgressions have continued, fueled by the brothers' apparent indifference to the rules and government regulators' lack of communication and unwillingness to come down hard on repeat offenders. The latest one, a $24,000 fine for allegedly illegal mint waste burns, was announced three days before Lee's stories went to press.

A dozen state and federal agencies have investigated the brothers' business practices, but they often don't have the capabilities to share that information among themselves, or are stymied by the complexity of the Browns' business dealings.

Add the timidity of some regulatory agencies, bred of years of anti-government sentiment and the recent trend toward assistance rather than punishment, and the situation is ripe for offenders like the Browns to keep doing business as usual, if they are willing to pay an occasional fine.

Not that the responsibility rests entirely with the government. The Browns, as businessmen and citizens, have a duty to obey the rules. Gerald Brown, who has a much shorter string of run-ins with regulators than his brother, Mike, appears more responsive to discipline. But, still, both brothers are heading businesses that continue to get into more than their fair share of trouble.

When personal responsibility doesn't work, it is the government's job to step in and protect the rest of us and our public lands from further harm. There clearly is a need for government agencies to share more information and for regulators to be willing to crack down when necessary.

Granted, the Browns are the extreme. Farmers are, by and large, a conscientious bunch who are good neighbors and stewards of the land. Admittedly, some of them have been the undeserved victims of overzealous government policies. Most farmers will do what is necessary to comply; sometimes they just need guidance from regulators to get there.

But when the carrot no longer works, it's time to break out the stick. A regulatory approach that embraces common sense and reasonable enforcement is good governing. One that proves ineffective against preventing repeated violations is not.

The Browns' saga has revealed a system that doesn't work for the most egregious cases. Fortunately for state and federal agencies, it also has vividly illustrated where they need to apply the fixes.

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