The politics of pollution unmasked 

Raising the veil on Southern Co., the White House and one Georgia senator

Let's say conservative studies showed that a local company contributed to more than 1,500 early deaths every year in Georgia.

Let's say that company spent millions of dollars in campaign contributions to preserve its ability to cause those early deaths.

Let's say both Georgia senators quietly used their pull to stop anyone from getting in the company's way -- and one even did so while he played coy with the very people who wanted to end those deaths.

Let's say you were talking about the Southern Co., its power plants and U.S. Sen. Max Cleland.

Three weeks ago, one man decided the federal government's reversal of its effort to clean up coal-fired power plants amounted to a moral issue. Eric Schaeffer ran the EPA's enforcement office and steered the agency in its lawsuits against Southern Co. and eight other power companies accused of increasing their pollution output illegally.

But he chucked his federal benefits and upwardly mobile career Feb. 28 because he could no longer sit by and watch decisions being made that could lead to early deaths for thousands of people. Environmentalists hailed him as a hero. His scathing resignation letter set off a media frenzy. And that prompted Sen. Joe Lieberman to hold hearings about the Bush administration's controversial environmental record.

In the aftermath, Creative Loafing has learned that even U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, a supposed friend of the environment, yielded to big-money pressure to get the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to back away from closing a gaping loophole in the Clean Air Act.

"I hope [environmentalists] don't feel this is any chink in the armor as far as his dedication to the environment is concerned," says Patricia Murphy, Cleland's press secretary. "His commitment to clean air shouldn't come into question over a letter."

Schaeffer, who was hired during the first Bush administration, worked his way up the EPA ladder to become director of regulatory enforcement. His office got together with the Justice Department in November 1999 to file lawsuits against nine utility holding companies that operate 32 older, coal-burning power plants.

One of the defendants was the Southern Co., sued in a U.S. District Court in Atlanta for spending hundreds of millions of dollars to increase power production at 10 plants without upgrading pollution controls -- a violation of what's called "New Source Review" regulations. Three of those plants are owned and operated by Southern subsidiary Georgia Power. The result of the modifications, according to the lawsuit, was that Southern's already filthy plants emitted even more pollution after they were modified.

The scope of Southern Co.'s pollution truly is startling. In 1999, the Atlanta-based utility retained its title as biggest air polluter in the nation by releasing 1.1 million tons of sulfur dioxide, 351,000 tons on nitrogen oxides, 161.7 million tons of carbon dioxide, according to a U.S. Public Interest Research Group breakdown of U.S. EPA statistics. (PIRG hasn't yet crunched those numbers for more recent years.) And, of all facilities that release air pollution in Georgia, the top three are Georgia Power's coal-fired power plants named in the EPA's lawsuit.

Other power companies named in the lawsuits were more willing to curb their pollution. By last spring, four of them had settled with the EPA, agreeing to spend close to a billion dollars each to upgrade their pollution controls.

On May 11, when the Justice Department announced the last of those settlements, Attorney General John Ashcroft called it a "victory for the environment."

For skeptics closely watching the lawsuits, it was an encouraging statement. Before he lost re-election in 2000, Ashcroft had one of the weakest records on the environment as a U.S. senator. Now, he claimed he was ready to go after the remaining defendants, which would've reduced pollutants by a total of 4.8 million tons each year if negotiations panned out.

Schaeffer was upbeat. In addition to the announced agreements, "we had some very good settlements under way with some other companies," he says. "We had some real progress being made. We were starting to swap ideas about proposals."

Now, he says, all talk about settling the suits is on hold.

The fact is that big power companies don't settle lawsuits in the same way that you or I might. While Schaeffer was at the negotiating table, the companies -- especially the biggest ones -- were changing the political landscape.

Power companies pumped $65 million in political contributions into federal campaigns. Enron Corp. was the biggest giver. Coming in second, with $1.4 million, was Southern Co.

As soon as George W. Bush moved into the White House, he assigned fellow oilman Dick Cheney to convene an energy task force that came up with precisely the plan you'd expect from the energy industry. Cheney himself met almost exclusively with industry executives and lobbyists; he sent his mid-level aides to listen to environmentalists. Sixty-four energy industry officers were invited to meet with Cheney and Energy Department staffers, while only one environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, was invited to help craft the new regulations.

The New York Times reported last week that 18 of the top 25 energy industry donors to the Republican Party during the 2000 election cycle sent representatives to meet with Cheney, task force members or the task force staff.

Southern Co. was one of those donors. In 1999, the latest year for which figures are available, Southern and its subsidiaries spent $4.3 million on 14 in-house lobbyists and 11 outside lobbying firms to pound D.C.'s marble hallways.

Its big-gun lobbyist is former national GOP Chairman Haley Barbour, who is leading fund-raising efforts to help the Republicans regain control of the Senate in 2002. For almost a year, Barbour has participated in the White House's energy policy discussions -- including numerous meetings with Cheney.

While the administration's ties to the energy industry drew plenty of headlines, the companies were getting quiet help from other quarters.

Schaeffer says it's standard practice for U.S. representatives and senators to write letters to the EPA on behalf of their constituents. But something different was going on with the New Source Review program.

"The traditional practice is the congressman sends a letter saying, 'Here's my constituent, they have this concern, look into it,'" Schaeffer says. "It's pretty unusual to takes sides on a case. If the Justice Department is bringing a case, then congressmen usually aren't weighing in as lawyers for the defendants. But we've gotten some pretty weird letters. When you get letters from politicians that use the same phrases [that appear] in ongoing lawsuits, it's pretty clear to me that somebody else is writing them."

Georgia's two senators -- Max Cleland and Zell Miller -- were "worse than that," Schaeffer says. Both sent letters to the EPA arguing against New Source Review, which provided the foundation for the lawsuits -- not exactly the kind of action you boast about in press releases to your constituents.

"They basically said, 'These things need reviewing, and why are you penalizing [power companies]? I understand these cases were brought for mere routine repair, and you're going to jeopardize energy supplies.'"

Creative Loafing confirmed that Cleland sent his letter to the EPA criticizing the New Source Review program in August. Miller mailed his letter to the EPA and Energy Department two months later.

In Miller's case, that's not surprising. He's publicly come out in support of other portions of the energy plan, including drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And since his election last November, he's largely staked out positions in support of Washington's moneyed interests.

But Cleland has a great reputation among environmentalists. His voting record has won high scores from the League of Conservation, and he's won endorsements from major environmental groups.

That's why -- even though he publicly sat on the fence over most portions of the energy plan -- environmentalists saw Cleland as a potential ally on New Source Review and the lawsuits. Until Schaeffer told CL, Cleland hadn't, as far as anyone knew, taken a stance on New Source Review.

In December, Colleen Kiernan of the Sierra Club, Allison Kelly of the Georgia Environmental Enforcement Project, Jennifer Giegerich of the Georgia Public Interest Research Group and Felicia Davis of the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda, met with Cleland's aides, hoping to persuade the senator to write a letter supporting the program. They say they were told Cleland hadn't taken a stance on New Source Review.

In fact, Cleland already had written EPA Administrator Christine Whitman in language that sounds suspiciously like lines fed by the electric power industry.

"I am writing to express my concern regarding the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s New Source Review (NSR) reinterpretation and its effect on energy reliability and performance," Cleland wrote. "I am concerned EPA's current policy on New Source Review is preventing or discouraging existing facilities from making efficiency and reliability improvements and from performance."

When sent a copy of Cleland's letter, Kiernan expressed shock.

"The Sierra Club is disappointed that Senator Cleland has been misled on this issue to believe that the rules have been changed in the middle of the game and that New Source Review is hampering the Southern Co.'s ability to provide Georgians with electricity," she said. "Senator Cleland should be concerned that over 1,600 Georgians die prematurely every year from pollution from coal-fired power plants, and New Source Review is the single best tool we have to do something about that."

Cleland himself wouldn't speak to Creative Loafing about his behind-the-scenes stance. But discovery of the letter set off alarms in the office of the senator, who is expected to face a tough GOP opposition this fall in his re-election bid.

"I don't think he's taken a position on New Source Review," insisted spokeswoman Eileen Force. "Frequently with federal regulations, they do need reviewing because the world changes and federal regulations need to change with it."

That was Thursday. On Friday, Press Secretary Patricia Murphy called back to say she was concerned Cleland would be portrayed as anti-environmental.

"There really is no stronger friend of the environment," Murphy said. "The letter expressed his concern over what could be an unintended consequence [of the New Source Review regulations] and a disincentive for routine maintenance."

But clearly such letters do matter. As Schaeffer indicated, the senators' letters made it clear that EPA regulators attempting to enforce the Clean Air Act on powerful utilities had nearly as little traction in Congress as they did in the Bush White House. Such letters also effectively green-lighted the administration's evisceration of New Source Review.

Environmentalists still are hopeful that Cleland will come around to their point of view as the Senate debates the energy plan this week. Financial and grassroots backing from environmental groups tend to be key for successful Democratic senatorial candidates.

But it's worth noting that Southern Co. is the second biggest giver to Cleland's current re-election campaign, and was his third biggest contributor during the 2000 election cycle, forking over a total of $59,450, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

When the energy plan was released last May 17, it amounted to a wish list for the energy industry. The plan would give $38 billion in tax breaks and research funding to the oil, coal, electric and nuclear power industries, according to a report released by the Georgia Public Interest Research Group. Most of the beneficiaries aren't exactly hurting: They recorded $1.6 trillion in revenues in fiscal year 2000.

Congress' General Accounting Office is trying to shed some light on how Cheney came up with his proposals. In a landmark case, the GAO has sued the White House for records on whom the task force consulted in devising the plan. So far though, Cheney and his lawyers have dodged efforts by the GAO and private watchdog groups to get thousands of documents generated during the drafting of the energy plan.

In the meantime, Bush followed the plan's recommendations by ordering EPA to review New Source Review and told the Justice Department to review the lawsuits.

Settlement negotiations, which had stalled early in the spring, "landed with a thud with the May energy report," Schaeffer says. "What basically killed it all together, killed the momentum, was the May energy report, which, in the middle of our lawsuits says, 'We're going to take another look at the law that's being enforced.'"

On Valentine's Day, Bush gave polluters more good news. He unveiled his "Clear Skies" program, which would weaken the Clean Air Act's requirements to reduce greenhouse gases and other air pollutants. It also aims to establish a pollution-credit trading program that industry has for years wanted to use instead of New Source Review.

Two weeks later, Schaeffer resigned.

Lieberman invited EPA Administrator Whitman to a March 7 Senate hearing that the Connecticut Democrat convened in response to Schaeffer's resignation. Whitman stated overtly that power companies might as well do what they'd pretty much been doing since last May: Forget about settling for now. She noted that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Atlanta, is due to rule on an appeal filed by the Tennessee Valley Authority challenging the EPA's cleanup orders.

Following Whitman, Schaeffer provided the rare view of a high-level bureaucrat who could tell the world frankly what had happened in his agency.

"This outrage [of weakening the New Source] should be stopped, and it can be if we are willing to enforce the Clean Air Act. But EPA's efforts to do so are threatened by a political attack on the enforcement process that I have never seen in 12 years at the agency.

"The energy lobbyists, working closely with their friends in the White House and the Department of Energy, are working furiously to weaken the laws we are trying to enforce. Not surprisingly, defendants have slipped away from the negotiating table one by one, and our momentum toward settling these cases has effectively stopped."

What's most depressing is that just as the Bush administration undermines the Clean Air Act, the link between air pollution and severe health problems is proving to be stronger than previously thought.

Air pollution long has been suspected of triggering asthma attacks, but a study published in the British medical journal The Lancet in early February found for the first time that smog can cause asthma. The study was conducted by researchers with the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences and the University of Southern California.

Another study, published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, determined that prolonged exposure to pollutants that come from power plants increases deaths related to lung cancer and heart disease, much as second-hand smoke does. The researchers who led that study are from Brigham Young University, the New York University School of Medicine and the American Cancer Society.

An EPA study released last fall offers some bottom-line numbers: A reduction of 7 million tons 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.

Here 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. Reducing Georgia Power's pollution to the extent envisioned in the New Source Review lawsuit would prevent 1,090 premature deaths, the Clear the Air study concluded.

Of course, Southern Co. officials always have questioned the validity of such studies. But does anyone really doubt the mounting scientific evidence bears some relation to reality? That millions of tons of toxic chemicals somehow do contribute to deaths in metro Atlanta? That studies by independent scientists are more valid than the claims of big-money lobbyists?

Southern Co. officials apparently don't want to deal with such questions. They didn't provide a spokesperson to answer questions for this story.

Some companies in polluting industries are grappling with such tough issues -- and the moral questions surrounding them. Southern Co. might find a good role model in British Petroleum, which has pushed alternative energy sources and sustainability while still keeping an eye on its stock price.

Two weeks ago, BP's CEO, Sir John Browne, announced that effective April 1, the oil company no longer will donate corporate money to political campaigns because the collapse of Enron has turned up the spotlight on cozy relationships between corporations and government.

Of course, Southern Co. is one of Georgia's favorite sons. It's homegrown. It's one of the state's oldest and most profitable companies -- easily our largest utility.

There's a Georgia Power sign at nearly every T-ball field and a Georgia Power officer in most Kiwanis Clubs. And both Southern Co. and Georgia Power are among the state's biggest donors to community groups, arts organization, even some environmental causes.

When it comes to lungs, the company is a bit more cash-minded.

michael.wall@creativeloafing.com

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