Mike Pucci was an unlikely candidate to lead an environmental movement. The Republican businessman never imagined he’d spend several years of his life fighting for a cause alongside the Sierra Club.
But Pucci, who had recently retired from GlaxoSmithKline, saw red flags flying the first time he heard about a project that could potentially send radioactive materials into North Carolina waterways – including Lake Gaston, the site of Pucci’s retirement home.
Pucci says many of his neighbors were unfazed by the plans. But he immediately saw the worst possible scenario, in which radioactive materials leak from the mine, located near a tributary of the Roanoke River, into everything downstream – including wells across Eastern North Carolina and seafood habitats along the coast.
“If something went wrong, this would go very wrong very fast for a lot of people,” says Pucci, 53. “Radiation is permanent, and it will kill you.”
So Pucci, whose job involved working with federal health policy, organized a statewide coalition to fight the Virginia mine in that state’s legislature, which voted last month against lifting the longtime ban on uranium mining.
Williamston Mayor Tommy Roberson, a Democrat who was head of the Roanoke River Mayors Association at the time, says Pucci played a key role in organizing opposition – driving across the state and attending countless meetings on his own dime.
“Mike was kind of like a spark plug and a catalyst,” Roberson says. “He really carried the fight in North Carolina, the one who really did the ground work and took the time and effort.”
State Rep. Ruth Samuelson wrote in an email message that Pucci “was very instrumental in keeping folks informed and coordinated as the bill progressed.”
“He played a critical role in stopping what could have been a very damaging change for the people of North Carolina,” says Samuelson, a Republican from Mecklenburg County who serves on the General Assembly’s Environmental Review Commission, which set a letter to Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell opposing the mine.
A rapid rise
Pucci bounced around the U.S. for years before settling in Raleigh in 1992 – first as the son of a college football coach and later for his job with GlaxoSmithKline.
He was born in Iowa, but spent much of his youth in Virginia, where his father coached at William & Mary under Lou Holtz. The family moved to Minnesota while Pucci was in high school.
He always enjoyed the outdoors, particularly in Minnesota, where he spent a good bit of time fishing and hunting in the region’s lakes.
He went to college in Wisconsin, planning to be a forest ranger. But two years into his college career, he switched to a biology degree with a minor in teaching – following in the footsteps of his father with plans to be a coach.
After this first year of teaching, he took a summer job at a pharmacy at the Mayo Clinic, where he came into contact with salesmen from pharmaceutical companies.
He thought it looked like an interesting career.
“I had ever thought about business before, but these were people working in a professional environment with products that help people,” he says.
He landed a job with GlaxoSmithKline at a time when the company was growing rapidly, which he says hastened his ascent up the management ranks.
Within a few years, he became vice president of sales. Later, he moved into a new role advocating for the pharmaceutical industry in both government affairs and public opinion.
He traveled the country, making 800 speeches on the role of medicines in maintaining health and lowering health care costs. The company also publicized free and discounted medicine.
In 2009, he was appointed to the Mayo-Dartmouth Health Initiative to advise the group that was helping President Barack Obama draft what became the Affordable Health Care Act. In another example of his tendency to cross political lines, Pucci remains a supporter of the divisive law.
He chose to retire early after those projects were completed, and sold his house in Raleigh to take up residence at his lake home. He planned to work as a consultant, and indeed started working on a freelance basis almost immediately after retiring.
But he also enjoyed some relaxation. A diving board stretches from his back porch into Lake Gaston. His wife took up pottery, and he went in on a vast tract of land where he and his buddies can hunt.
He was also appointed to the area’s Water Safety Council, and it was a presentation to that committee that introduced him to the planned mine located near the Banister River.
Forming a network
The mine north of Danville had split the local community. Pucci believed the potential for deadly materials to flow downstream through the Roanoke River Basin, with its vast network of lakes, streams and coastal waterways, made the project far too risky.
He started calling around and presenting his concerns to local government bodies and other civic groups. Eventually, he formed a coalition that includes representatives of businesses, economic development officials, county and town governments, environmentalists and the medical community.
Pucci was well-suited to the job. He had studied water resource management during college, and had also just completed an intense experience in government affairs.
“That was the experience I brought to bear: I could organize, I could form an argument, I’ve been in sales all my life,” he says.
He sent sometimes-daily emails to about 200 interested parties, including property owners, elected officials, and the media.
In the days leading up to the vote, he encouraged individual property owners to write a personal letter to each senator in Virginia.
He remembers every name of every person he dealt with, and all the numbers: the cost of each study, the number of people who get water from each body of water that might be affected by the mine.
And while plans for the mine are dead for now, he’s still working to raise funds from coalition members for when – not if – they need to renew their fight.
“As long as that uranium is there, the issue is not going to go away,” he says. “And next time, we’ll be ready.”
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