Southern culture on the skids 

Enviros, scientists and regulators jab at its every move, but Southern Co. says it's doing all the right things

Arriving at Georgia Power's largest electric plant is something like visiting Stone Mountain.

You make your way through the entrance gate and face a massive structure that juts discordantly from the rolling, green landscape of Georgia's Piedmont.

But Plant Bowen, about 35 miles north of Atlanta in Bartow County, is not a natural behemoth. The central building, the one that houses the plant's massive boilers and massive turbines, is bigger than an airport terminal. Two smokestacks tower higher than any Atlanta skyscraper, and four curvaceous cooling towers are so big, they look as if they could swallow blimps for breakfast.

Pipes, tubes and ducts twist for miles inside the plant's guts. That they somehow work with machinery the size of small houses is impressive, especially considering Bowen produces 20 percent of all of Georgia Power's electricity and is the fourth-largest producer of electricity in the country.

You have to either go inside the plant office, or take an elevator 13 flights up and walk up two more flights to the roof to chat. The drone of combustion and machinery is so loud that everyone below must wear earplugs.

But the roof is a good place for plant manager Greg Everett to begin to express his frustration. He wants to correct what he sees as the myths that people have about power plants. One day, he says, he saw a car parked on the side of the road in front of the plant. He stopped to find out why.

A couple was sitting inside arguing whether the enormous cooling towers were nuclear reactors. He set them straight, and they were on their way.

"What you see coming out of there is nothing but water vapor," Everett says. "But because these cooling towers look like the ones at Three Mile Island, you've got the public thinking they're nuclear plants."

Everett believes the public gets a lot wrong about his business, especially when it comes to the actions of Georgia Power and its parent, the Southern Co.

Health studies that fault his plant for premature deaths, asthma and heart and lung disease are incomplete at best, he says. Weekly news articles pointing to Southern Co.'s heavy lobbying to weaken clean air laws are unfair. And the environmental groups that demonize the company are just plain misguided.

The criticism is coming so frequently now that folks like Everett have begun to take it personally.

"One of my pet peeves is people saying, the media saying, that we're this big bad corporation," he says. "We're here, too. We live in these communities, too. And people talk about lobbying, that we're fighting the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's clean air] rules."

Everett is leading a tour of the plant Tuesday, May 21, a day when much of the controversy surrounding Southern Co. is coming to a head. While we walked through the plant, the Tennessee Valley Authority was facing down the U.S. Justice Department in Atlanta during a crucial hearing over a federal lawsuit against the EPA's attempts to get coal-fired power plants to reduce their emissions. Southern Co. lawyers and execs, who have intervened in the case on TVA's behalf, watched in court with keen interest.

And the next day, a small group of Southern Co. shareholders was set to make more headlines when they pressed the company to rely more heavily on eco-friendly energy sources.

Despite the opposition, the Southern Co. is not some faceless, evil empire that hates the environment, Everett says. It's nothing more than a bunch of moms and dads, community people, T-ball coaches.

Everett doesn't come across as the kind of slick executive who would spin the facts at a press conference. He's a plant manager, homegrown and genuine. He's also proud of the engineering wonder that is Plant Bowen.

So are the half-dozen or so Plant Bowen employees who got up to speak at a public meeting about the pollution coming from the plant in the Cartersville-Bartow County Chamber of Commerce May 2.

In the process of fending off a room full of environmental advocates, they all mentioned three things: how active Georgia Power was in the community, how long they've personally lived in the community, and how many children they have living just down the street from the plant.

The meeting itself was held only because of those thorn-in-Everett's-side advocacy groups. Eight of them petitioned and lobbied the board of the state Department of Natural Resources for a series of such meetings. Another showdown with the anti- pollution crowd will take place in Macon May 28.

There's an even bigger coalition of advocacy groups called "Clean Up Southern Company," whose soul purpose is to raise hell about the pollution coming from Southern's plants.

To Everett, those environmentalists simply can't grasp how much power it takes, how much coal needs to burn to keep their air conditioning running during the summer, their lights on at night.

Everett can take comfort in the fact that at the same time Southern Co. is attacked as one of the biggest polluters and political bullies in the country, the corporate world has lauded it as the poster child for American businesses.

Fortune magazine recently named Southern Co. the most admired electric utility in the country. Southern Co. CEO Allen Franklin is on the cover of the latest issue of Georgia Trend for being the most respected CEO in the state.

Everett directs a project at Plant Bowen that's expected to bring even more praise for Southern Co. Contractors are building what's called a selective catalytic reducer for two of the four power-producing units there.

Two other SCRs already are online. When all four are running by next summer, Georgia Power's contribution to Atlanta's ozone smog problem is projected to drop from about 20 percent to 6 percent.

The four SCRs at Bowen cost $400 million. They also cost Everett a lot of grief.

"You know, there's not some store where you can just go buy SCRs," he says.

Entire sections of the plant were retrofitted so that new equipment the size of a small office building could squeeze between the boilers and the machines that lead to the smoke stacks.

"It was very difficult to make it fit," Everett says. "The engineering took two years and construction took probably about eight months."

And things didn't go entirely according to plan. Unexpected ash clumps accumulated inside the SCR. The "popcorn ash," as Everett calls it, has to be removed. The SCRs under construction are being re-engineered so the problem doesn't occur on those units.

"For every solution, there's a problem," Everett says.

From the edge of the roof, Everett points to four enormous fans resting at the bottom of the construction area where the two SCRs are being built. The fans, he says, were needed to pull the exhaust through the SCRs because the blowers on the other side weren't powerful enough.

"And scrubbers, that'll be a whole other set of problems," he adds.

Scrubbers reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, the key ingredient of fine particulate matter, better known as soot, a coal-plant pollutant that was linked to heart and lung disease in a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

That was only one in a series of scientific reports over the last year or so that have drawn a closer link than ever between coal plant pollution and human health problems. A separate EPA study released last fall projected a nationwide reduction of 7 million tons in emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide would prevent 10,800 premature deaths, 5,400 incidents of chronic bronchitis, 5,100 trips to the emergency room and 1.5 million lost workdays. In Georgia, power plant pollution shortens the lives of 1,630 people each year, according to a study conducted by Clear the Air, a nonprofit group backed by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Installing the most modern pollution control equipment would prevent 1,090 premature deaths, the Clear the Air study concluded.

Everett doesn't put much stock in such studies. Neither do Georgia Power spokesman John Sell and environmental engineer Steve Ewald, who accompanied us on the Plant Bowen tour.

"The science on a lot of these things that try to say where you're supposed to spend your money [on pollution controls] is really unclear," Everett says.

Ewald adds: "Right now, there are more questions in the science [of the health studies] than answers. It is not junk science, but there are a lot of holes in [the studies]."

And as for the scrubbers, Everett says, "Outsiders say, 'Well, just put on scrubbers on all the plants and fix it.' But as you've hopefully seen today, just fixing it isn't as easy as it seems."

Plus, the cost of the scrubbers could be even higher than the cost of SCRs.

Everett quickly points out that cost isn't necessarily the issue. What's frustrating, he says, is that the rules can cause as many problems as they're meant to solve.

"It's not that we're against the rules," Ewald says. "What people want us to do is just sit back and wait for the [EPA] rules to come out. We don't do that. We'll never do that. We want to influence the rules to make them the best and most effective they can be."

Weekly headlines attest to Southern's deep involvement in aggressive maneuvers by big industry to weaken environmental restrictions.

Just last week the media had a field day when the Natural Resources Defense Council reported that Southern Co. lobbyists contacted members of Vice President Dick Cheney's secretive energy task force at least seven times, according to the NRDC's examination of Energy Department documents.

One of those contacts was a March 2001 e-mail that Southern Co.'s corporate lobbyist Michael Riith sent to an Energy Department employee who was a member of the task force. Riith suggested weakening the New Source Review program, which the EPA is now using to force Southern Co. to upgrade pollution controls on old, coal-burning plants. In November 1999, the Justice Department and the EPA filed a lawsuit against Southern Co. for increasing power production at Plant Bowen and nine other plants without upgrading pollution controls, an alleged violation of New Source Review regulations.

"We have a duty on behalf of our 1.9 million customers to be in there and influence policy," Sell says. "Don't kid yourself, the other side, the environmental groups, are trying as hard as they can to get in there and influence what they can. We just worked the way the system is designed."

On the drive from Plant Bowen back to Atlanta, Ewald says the reaction inside the company to negative media stories is, "Well -- I know when an article comes out. Let me put it like this, I get a lot of phone calls. People at the plants take it very personally. You could tell that [Everett] takes it personally."

"Shoot," he adds, "I take it personally."

Power plants, by nature, pollute. We all use electricity. And, at least with the current way of doing things, you almost always have to burn something to produce electricity.

About 70 percent of Southern Co.'s electricity comes from burning coal. Coal is so cheap, and Georgians do benefit from the fact that coal is the main source of our electricity: Our power bills run about 15 percent lower than the national average.

The downside is that there's a bunch of stuff in coal that's not so good to breathe. And that's why a push to reduce Southern's dependency on coal dominated the company's annual meeting May 22 at the Ritz-Carlton on Lake Oconee, 80 miles east of Atlanta.

Southern Co. shareholder Robin Mills proposed in a resolution to require Southern Co. to produce 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar power in 20 years.

In its proxy statement, Southern Co. encouraged shareholders to vote against the proposal, saying "it would call for the company to put in place a restrictive and costly plan in regard to its future operations."

When the floor opened to debate the proposal, Sam Booher, a Southern Co. shareholder and chairman of the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club, was one of those to stand and ask CEO Allen Franklin to support using renewable energy.

"I'm concerned as to what is the vision that you and the board have for our company," Booher said. "I also own stock in the British Petroleum Company. Their vision is to move the company into natural gas and solar energy. Does that mean to me, in 10 years, we here in the South will be buying solar panels from the British Petroleum Company?

"Why will we not be able to buy them from Southern Co.? Please develop a vision for our company that instead of putting children at risk, puts solar panels on our homes here in the South."

Franklin replied that he wished he could cut shut down coal plants, but doing so would cripple the region's economy.

"It would be a dark day, literally, in this country if we couldn't burn coal," he said.

Other clean air advocates, including Stephen Smith from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Jennifer Giegerich and Rebecca Stanfield from the Public Interest Research Group, also asked shareholders to vote for the renewable energy proposal.

Their pleas were met with scattered applause.

When shareholders got up to praise Southern Co.'s reliability and competitive prices, the room filled with cheers.

While shareholders cast their ballots on the renewable energy proposal, Franklin reported on the company's financial status. In one year, the company's market value had grown $1.3 billion.

He said Southern Co. is spending $1 billion for the SCRs here in Georgia and Alabama Power plants in Birmingham, Ala. The company plans to spend another $4 billion for other clean air regulations, and $165 million to cool water going into Georgia waterways.

"When these expenditures are made, we will have more invested in environmental control equipment at these power plants, than the net investment in the plants themselves," Franklin says.

Franklin finished his report, and the audience slowly started to applaud. A man in the front row walked up to Franklin and handed him some papers.

"I've just been given a preliminary report on the [shareholder] vote," he said. "Based on that report with 456 million shares having been counted -- the proposal regarding renewal energy sources has been defeated, receiving 31.6 million votes."

People holding about 7 percent of Southern Co.'s shares wanted the company to head down a different path. The company's remaining shareholders, officers and employees believe Southern is doing just fine.

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