Oh, Sen. John Breaux surely would tell you different. His staff didn't return our calls, when they learned what we were asking about. But the Louisiana Democrat might break out a familiar old saw about the cozy relationship between politicians and well-heeled special interests: That the lovely L.A. soiree co-sponsored by his good friends at the Southern Co. had nothing to do with the favors he's done for the company since, including that letter he sent the White House urging regulators to back off a program that could clean up Atlanta's deadly air pollution. Nothing at all.
And, for their part, Southern Co. execs stress that it's absurd -- simply absurd -- to assume that their $4 million in lobbying expenses or the oodles of cash they give to candidates would give them the power to skew the nation's energy and environmental policies -- or, say, to make a potentially multibillion-dollar Justice Department lawsuit against the company disappear.
"I'm pleased that there are people out there who think we have as much influence as they seem to think we do," says Chris M. Hobson, vice president of environmental affairs for Georgia Power, a Southern subsidiary. "They think we have more influence than we think we do."
Pardon our skepticism. "Influence," after all, is something of a synonym for "power." And just as Georgia Power has exercised its influence in county courthouses and under the state's Gold Dome for the better part of a century, its parent company has done so quite effectively in Washington.
Exhibit No. 1 -- and the one that really ticks off environmentalists -- came out of Congress in 1970. That was the year Southern became a prime beneficiary of a little clause in the Clean Air Act that exempted certain coal-fired power plants from adding modern pollution controls. The loophole said power plants that were already built or were in the process of being built wouldn't have to install expensive new emission controls as long as the plants themselves weren't modified in a major way.
"The whole electric industry was pushing for [the exemption]," says John Walke, a former attorney at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and current director of the air division at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Power companies were claiming they would retire their oldest and dirtiest power plants, and it wasn't cost effective for Congress to require them to retrofit plants with pollution control equipment."
In hindsight, it was ridiculous for lawmakers in the 1970s to believe that electric companies would shut down cheap, dirty, old plants to build expensive, clean, new ones -- especially since Congress had exempted plants that weren't even built yet. Ten coal-burning Southern Co. plants were grandfathered in the '70s; all are still in operation today.
Only one of the three grandfathered plants in Georgia -- Plant Kraft, near Savannah -- was completed before 1970.
Plant Bowen, just west of Cartersville, was completed in 1975, but because it already was in the planning phase when the Clean Air Act passed, it wasn't required to have modern pollution controls. In 1999, Bowen was the ninth dirtiest power plant in the country for sulfur dioxide, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group from EPA databases.
Bowen emitted 140,154 tons of the poisonous gas, which is a key component of acid rain. Sulfur dioxide also forms tiny, poisonous particles near ground level known as particulate matter pollution that many scientists now believe increase lung disease and incidents of heart attacks. A PIRG study says 110,672 tons of Plant Bowen's sulfur dioxide emissions would be eliminated if modern pollution controls were in place.
Plant Scherer, near Macon in Monroe County, was completed in 1989. Even though it was finished 19 years after the Clean Air Act passed, it was exempted from using modern pollution controls. Scherer was the country's No. 1 source of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the country in 1999, and the 13th largest source of nitrogen oxide, which contributes to ozone smog.
Overall, in 1999, the Southern Co. was the No. 1 producer of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide -- in the nation.
The scope of the pollution wafting from Southern Co.'s grandfathered plants is truly startling to anyone even vaguely familiar with metro Atlanta's air-pollution woes. While our heavy driving habit is the source of more than half the chemicals that go into the region's ozone smog, Georgia Environmental Protection Division computer models say one company alone is the source for more than a third of them. That would be the Southern Co.
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