The politics of pollution unmasked 

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

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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."



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