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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

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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.

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