Poor, polluted – and dead 

So a Texas power company can make a few dollars, Georgia officials will endanger our children

Urbane metro Atlantan that you are, you've probably never been to Early County. You may never have heard of the dusty rural patch of pine trees and cotton fields located in the far southwest corner of Georgia on the Alabama border.

But Early County's pollution is coming to you – and much of the rest of Georgia and Alabama – in the form of a coal-powered electricity plant, the first to be built in the state since the 1980s.

Think of air pollution equivalent to that produced annually by 1.5 million cars. That's about 9 million tons of carbon dioxide – plus oh-so-much more of all the other bad stuff coughed out by power plants. Then think of all that crap being dumped on our heads, and that's Early County's gift to the state. The huge fires in South Georgia earlier this summer – and the pall that spread over metro Atlanta – is testimony that we'll breathe what the Early County power plant disgorges.

To be fair, that's what environmental lawyer Justine Thompson asserts – she filed an appeal with an administrative law judge to stop the plant. State officials with the Environmental Protection Division must disagree – in May they gave a hearty go-ahead to the coal-fired power plant on the Chattahoochee River about 50 miles north of the Florida border.

You can tell the plant's developer was blowing smoke, so to speak, in what must have been a spin-doctor-crafted green-sounding moniker attached to the project: "Longleaf Energy Station." Equally deceitful are promises to Early County of an economic windfall. The plant will employ only about 100-150 people, and fat profits won't stay in the county or even this state.

Georgia already has 10 coal-fired plants, including the nation's absolute No. 1 dirtiest, lethal polluting facility at Plant Scherer, which is near Macon and owned by Georgia Power.

Longleaf is not owned by Georgia Power or its parent, Southern Co. That's a novelty in a state where Southern Co. enjoys a monopoly in most places and wields almost absolute power over officials. Longleaf will be the handiwork of a Houston, Texas, outfit called Dynegy Inc. You can at least give Georgia Power execs credit for breathing their own sludge – Dynegy's honchos will be far away from the filth they create.

The plant will be, in the lingo of the power industry, a "merchant" facility. That means its electricity – which would light up somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million homes – won't go to the 12,000 folks in Early County, or even Georgians in general. The power will be sold on an open market of electricity suppliers. Dynegy won't get specific on who will get its electricity, which signals that Georgia is low on the company's list, Thompson says. Much, maybe most, of the power will likely buzz south to Florida, which, with its many teeming metropolises and turbo-charged growth, is hungry for wattage. So, the Sunshine State gets electricity while the Peach State gets toxic pollutants. What a deal!

Florida, however, also applies a little muscle in regulating utilities – an unheard-of concept in Georgia. Southern Co., for example, just announced it's building a coal power plant near Orlando. But, to please Florida's regulators, that plant will use a process called "Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle." Basically, coal is turned into gas, and the resulting heat is then recycled to create steam. It's cleaner than any other coal process. IGCC produces less pollution, less solid waste and uses far less water than other coal power-plant technologies.

"The words 'coal' and 'clean' should never be used in the same sentence," says lawyer Thompson, whose Atlanta firm is called GreenLaw, which is representing the Sierra club and Friends of the Chattahoochee in the appeal. "But when you're talking about IGCC, the word 'cleaner' is appropriate."

Longleaf won't employ gasification, but will use older, dirtier technologies. The EPD, in a prepared statement, calls Longleaf "one of the cleanest facilities of its type." Thompson rebuts that claim in a 44-page appeal that contends EPD "failed to ... consider several technically feasible options" such as gasification. (An EPD spokesman said the agency won't make further statements until Thompson's appeal is decided.)

Put another way, gasification would kill a lot fewer children. And fewer kids would suffer from asthma, fewer adults would wheeze from respiratory problems or fall over with heart attacks. Atlanta is already the asthma capital of the nation – Longleaf will further entrench that, um, achievement.

As Sammy Prim, a physician who lives in Jordan, Ala., just across the Hooch from Longleaf, says: "This power plant scares me to death. Already things are so bad around here [from a Georgia-Pacific paper mill] that I don't need to listen to the pollution index on the radio. When I walk into the hospital, I can tell the index is up because I see all the kids waiting in the hall."

According to Thompson, Georgia EPD officials ignored federal requirements that would have forced Dynegy to use cleaner technology, not only in how the coal is burned but also in how the airborne residue is "scrubbed." Why? That's easy: cost. Gasification is not excessively expensive, but it would cost a few pennies more.

That horrifies officials who have one fervent desire: to be friendly to bidness. A tiny increase in corporate profits far outweighs the lives and health of Georgia children.

That brings us back to Early County. The county commission chairman, a banker named Richard Ward, is fond of repeating to the press that he's so excited by the proposed plant, he carries a shovel around with him to be ready for the groundbreaking.

What Ward doesn't address is the reality of Early County. More than half the citizens are black. The median household income is 40 percent less than that of all Georgians.

Thompson, in papers filed with the state, contends, "It is well established that ... pollution from power plants [has] been linked to asthma attacks, respiratory disease, heart attacks and premature deaths. ... While pollution from power plants affects all people, 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. Moreover, asthma occurs disproportionately among African Americans in Georgia, who are two to three times more likely than whites to suffer asthma-related deaths."

Prim puts it more succinctly. "We're powerless when it comes to politics," the doctor says. "No one listens to us because communities around here are mostly black and poor. That power plant is coming here because we're a depressed area. The politicians claim it will bring jobs. Weighed against the damage it will cause, it's not worth it."

Hearings on Justine Thompson's appeal of the state's approval of the Longleaf Energy Station began earlier this month and will continue this week and next week.

GreenLaw's arguments can be found at http://green-law.org.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division is at http://www.gaepd.org/ and its Air Protection Branch is at www.georgiaair.org.

More information on power plants and pollution can be found at http://www.environmentalintegrity.org/pub385.cfm.

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