Mining Executive An Activist Himself

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The Palm Beach Post (Florida)

Mining Executive An Activist Himself

by
Robert P. King

He's a vegan, the ultimate Deadhead and a friend of the Earth - the kind of environmentalist who has gone to jail to save old-growth forests, built his house from recycled lumber and raised money to send a socialist to the U.S. Senate.

He might sound like one of those eco-protesters who blockaded the mining company Palm Beach Aggregates two weeks ago.

But no. Michael Klein is one of the company's owners.

That fact could make Klein one of the most colorful business executives ever to hold such a major stake in the future of Palm Beach County. Probably few others here can talk about owning a gourmet raw-food restaurant near San Francisco, hanging out in Thailand with Woody Harrelson, marrying the ex-wife of actor Michael Douglas and hosting the wake for Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia.

But Klein's ecological paradoxes might be his most striking feature.

As a board member and former chairman of the Rainforest Action Network, he leads a group whose activists have rappelled down buildings and chained themselves to bank entrances to protest corporate wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, his company near Loxahatchee is drawing fire from local environmentalists, who accuse Aggregates of promoting rock mining, development and a Florida Power & Light Co. plant that will imperil the Everglades.

Days after the Feb. 18 anti-FPL blockade on Southern Boulevard, the rain forest group's blog publicized the protesters' cause, including their pleas for bail money. The Palm Beach Aggregates sign is prominent in two protest photos on the Web site.

Klein, 52, son of late Aggregates founder Sam Klein, declined to comment, but his allies say he's sincere in his passion for the environment. Aggregates co-owner Enrique Tomeu says Klein also has supported the company's costly efforts to reduce its output of greenhouse gases.

"He's a committed, passionate environmentalist," Tomeu said. "He's given millions to environmental causes."

Klein has even gone to jail for his beliefs. In July 2001, he was one of 20 rain forest activists arrested at a sit-in outside a paper company's headquarters near Chicago, alongside singer Bonnie Raitt and John Densmore, drummer for The Doors.

"I think Michael is one of the great conservationists in our country right now," said Mike Roselle, a former board member of the rain forest group who was arrested with Klein at the 2001 protest. "He's been a foot soldier. It's not just about writing checks."

The Rainforest Action Network was not part of the Feb. 18 protest, which included activists from the radical Earth First! movement. But it has worked with Earth First! in other protests across the country, and Roselle said it's one of the few national environmental groups that makes civil disobedience a prime part of its mission.

"It's hard to find people to support a group that practices civil disobedience," said Roselle, founder of other eco-protest groups like the Ruckus Society. "He (Klein) was never concerned about that."

Local Earth First! organizer Panagioti Tsolkas said he'd like to speak with Klein, if only to find out how much control he has over Palm Beach Aggregates' activities.

"I think I'd like to touch base and see if he's following what's going on down here," said Tsolkas, one of 27 protesters jailed after the February standoff.

"We're all sort of dependent on the system that we're at the same time fighting," Tsolkas said of Klein's dual role. "This is maybe a more blatant example than usual."

Klein, a Harvard Business School graduate and former telecommunications executive, has been a partner in the Aggregates mine since 1992, when his father founded the company under the name GKK Corp. (The two K's stood for "Klein" and "Klein.") He's been in business with Tomeu since at least the mid-1990s, when he was a board member and investor in an environmental cleanup company that Tomeu headed.

Klein also is the CEO of Modulus Guitars, a California-based manufacturer of high-end instruments that rely on carbon fiber and unusual types of wood instead of old-growth forests.

His 15,000-square-foot home in Marin County, Calif., features construction materials such as recycled wood and compressed soil, along with two solar energy systems and 3 acres of organic gardens, according to The New York Times. News accounts say he has used the home to host Rainforest Action Network retreats and a fund-raiser for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an Independent who is a self-described socialist.

That house replaced a previous one in which Klein held Jerry Garcia's wake in August 1995. One attendee, Palm Beach County Commissioner Jeff Koons, said he was struck by Klein's empathetic, down-to-earth manner, plus the view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

"It was a surreal moment," said Koons, whose sister Deborah Koons Garcia is Garcia's widow. "I think Bob Dylan was there."

Klein and his father each owned 25 percent of Palm Beach Aggregates, as does Tomeu. Sam Klein died in October, potentially leaving his son with ownership of half of the company, although Tomeu calls that a private matter.

Speaking under oath last year, Sam Klein said his son was instrumental in one major decision years ago, when the Fanjul family was seeking help with an annexation proposal that could have aided development in western Palm Beach County.

"I said, 'Oh, Michael will kill me if I do this,' " Sam Klein told a state investigator in August. He said his son told him: " 'Don't you dare. They're trying to open that whole area for housing.'

"And so I went back to Mr. Tomeu and said we will not do it," Sam Klein testified.

Instead, Aggregates agreed to let Wellington annex only a 1,219-acre swath of company-owned land that did not adjoin the Fanjuls' property. That annexation failed, but the proposal prompted the county to approve a vast increase in the development potential of Aggregates' land.

Tomeu said Michael Klein also supported the company's switch to electric-powered mining and crushing equipment, including 4 miles of conveyor belts, to slash its reliance on diesel fuel.

"We basically have made a commitment to lower our carbon footprint," Tomeu said. "He was a good part of the driving force behind it. He's always asking how can we improve the environment."

Tsolkas, of Earth First!, said he would like Klein to help by stopping the FPL plant, being built on land it bought from Aggregates next door. Then he would like to see him put a stop to "this rock mining disaster."

"Maybe we need to get Bonnie Raitt over here," Tsolkas said.

© 2008 Palm Beach Post

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