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Special Reports Last Updated: Apr 3rd, 2007 - 02:24:10

Southern Company: Choosing profit over life for decades
By D. Grant Haynes
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Apr 3, 2007, 01:19

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Remember those old songs about moonlight in Georgia pines? Of stars falling on Alabama? Of star-crossed lovers meandering amongst the magnolias?

The impression of the Deep South conveyed overwhelmingly by 20th century lyricists, poets and novelists was one of unspoiled bucolic beauty -- a world far removed from the dismal smoke stacks of a Gary, Indiana, or a Detroit -- a world in which languid summer nights out of Tennessee Williams� play book were characterized by the scent of honeysuckle and the sounds of breezes sighing in the pines and of Southern Mockers and other night birds.

That South did exist well into the 20th Century. It was the South of my youth in Middle Georgia.

It was the South to which I returned for visits during my work career elsewhere -- a land that always refreshed me at the soul level, permitting me to venture forth again happy in my memories of my �home� that still existed.

But that South is no more.

My home has been destroyed.

I learned this bitter lesson when I moved to Georgia a year ago for what I anticipated would be a pleasant retirement. I was coming home to stay and enjoy life among the pines and gentle creatures of Middle Georgia that I had known and loved all of my life.

Or so I thought.

Soon after my arrival home, I found to my shock and dismay that the Deep South I remembered has been replaced by a polluted hell hole in which one has to watch the daily AQI (Air Quality Index) from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Internet site before venturing outside. Some days the air is so bad -- particulate level (PM2.5) is so high -- that outdoor activities are discouraged.

And on almost all days each of Georgia�s population centers -- Atlanta, Columbus, Macon, and Augusta especially -- lie in a blanket of acrid yellow-brown pollution that burns one�s eyes and respiratory membranes and, medical experts tell us, can trigger asthma and even do permanent cardiovascular damage.

No more strolls in the moonlit pines. The air no longer smells fresh and inviting, and the moon, if visible, hangs in a filtering haze which lends an unearthly orange hue to our little companion planet.

Alabama�s cities are no better -- worse, in fact, in some cases.

Birmingham, an old smelting center that has known hellish pollution for a hundred years and more, has seen a faltering steel industry replaced by a circle of coal-fired electricity-generating steam plants that put to shame the blast furnaces of another era there.

The polluting steam plants ringing Birmingham -- plants that consume train loads of pulverized coal daily while producing as a byproduct of that coal combustion prodigious amounts of fly ash (PM2.5), sulfur dioxide (S02), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), the king of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (C02), and neurotoxins like mercury (Hg) -- are almost all owned and operated by Alabama Power Company, a subsidiary of the Southern Company which is headquartered in Atlanta.

We�re not talking an occasional unpleasant whiff of sulfur dioxide that might obscure a few stars falling on 21st century Alabama on a lazy, hazy summer evening now and then.

We�re talking hundreds of thousands and occasionally millions of tons of particulate matter (minute bits of fly ash mixed with droplets of various combustion gas combinations), sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide, along with hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds of mercury being wafted into the atmosphere from tall industrial smoke stacks to settle back to the ground along and down the �wind shed� of North Alabama which happens to be most of Georgia -- especially my part of Georgia.

A case in point

Alabama Power�s E. C. Gaston steam plant in Shelby County, Alabama, southeast of Birmingham on the Coosa River, is one of the worst polluters in the nation, ranking in the top 50 dirtiest plants in every measurable category, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) numbers for the year 2005 -- the most recent data available.

E.C. Gaston ranks 7th in the nation in S02 emissions out of the 376 plants included in the database examined. E.C. Gaston�s stacks loft 127,658.4 tons -- yes, tons -- of sulfur dioxide annually to drift over East Alabama and onto hapless Georgians.

Alabama Power�s E.C. Gaston coal plant boasts other dubious pollution honors too.

She ranks 9th in the nation in mercury emissions with 1,025 pounds annually.

How many birth defects recorded in East Alabama and Georgia can be attributed to E.C. Gaston mercury is anybody�s guess.

And E.C. Gaston is 18th in the nation out of those 376 plants in terms of NOx emissions with 25,372,3 tons sent skyward annually.

Finally, Alabama Power�s E.C. Gaston plant ranks 44th in that national database in C02 production with 12,234,048.4 tons sent up annually to help melt the polar ice caps.

And E.C. Gaston is only one of four Alabama Power/Southern Company plants that make the �Dirty 50� list.

We�ll deal with the others later.

Across the Chattahoochee River in Georgia, Atlanta, Columbus, Macon, Augusta and all country crossroad bergs between are dumped on with airborne poisons from E.C. Gaston and Alabama Power�s other unrelenting polluters.

But not to be upstaged by Alabama Power Company, Georgia Power Company -- also a subsidiary of the Southern Company -- does its share to poison the Deep South�s once blue skies.

In fact, Georgia Power Company operates the most polluting coal-fired steam plant in the nation. Period.

The Bowen Plant in Bartow County, Georgia, at Cartersville, some 44 miles northwest of Atlanta is number one -- the mother of all steam plants in the nation in terms of sulfur dioxide output. The Bowen Plant puts Georgia on the map with a flare and a distinctive odor.

More than four million Georgians living in the Greater Atlanta CSA have to breathe the Bowen Plant�s whopping nation beating record output of 186,470.3 tons of stinking, poisonous sulfur dioxide (S02) whenever the wind is out of the north in Georgia�s capital city.

And if the wind isn�t out of the north but, rather, from the south, Atlantans get a double dose of coal plant irritants from two Georgia Power plants south of Atlanta.

Both junior partners in Southern Company crime compared to Bowen, Wansley in Carroll County near Carrollton and Yates in Coweta County north of Newnan, nevertheless poison the air from the south for Atlantans.

Wansley is 17th in the national database in terms of sulfur dioxide output with 101,546.8 tons emitted annually -- for Atlanta 49 miles to the north if the wind is from the south and for Columbus -- 94 miles to the south -- if the wind is from the north.

Something for everyone

And Georgia Power�s Wansley Plant is also a major contributor to global warming, coming in at 28th place nationally in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. She produces 13,820,283.3 tons annually as her contribution to global degradation.

Yates in Coweta County is almost an also-ran in terms of Georgia Power Company coal plant pollution. She ranks 42nd in the nation in sulfur dioxide output with 66,518.9 tons annually. Again, a south wind takes Yate�s emissions to metropolitan Atlanta 38 miles away and a north wind to Columbus 72 miles to the south.

Georgia Power/Southern Company operates another monstrous and highly polluting coal plant in Central Georgia that gives Bowen a run for its money in terms of pollutant numbers.

Plant Scherer in Monroe County north of Macon on the immediate western edge of what is supposed to be a beautiful national forest, the Oconee National Forest, produces more carbon dioxide (C02) than any other plant in the nation. Another first for the Southern Company and her subsidiary, Georgia Power!

Scherer produces an unfathomable 26,040,793.5 tons of C02 annually. That should melt a few glaciers in itself, compliments of Georgia Power Company in whose jurisdiction there are no glaciers.

Perhaps the writer beats a dead horse. Perhaps the point has been made.

Georgia and Alabama are replete with monstrously dangerous highly polluting coal-fired steam plants.

The Southern Company, which boasts a sterling NYSE rating and of record profits annually, is responsible for some of the most reprehensible industrial pollution in North America and, in a larger sense, throughout the world since jet stream borne pollution travels to every continent from every continent.

In a press release on their upscale web site -- one replete with references to the Southern Company�s highly evolved environmental conscience -- this corporate purveyor of disease and death wrote of her 2006 earnings.

�Citing continued economic strength and a growing customer base in the Southeast, Southern Company today reported full-year 2006 earnings of $1.57 billion, or $2.12 a share . . .

�Southern Company also reported solid fourth quarter earnings of $188.4 million, or 25 cents a share. This compared with reported earnings of $158.9 million, or 21 cents per share, in the fourth quarter of 2005. . . .�

The Southern Company had enough money to pay each stockholder an exceptional dividend, but she didn�t have enough money to clean up her smoke stacks that are killing people.

Everything is coming up roses for investors in Southern Company stock, one is led to believe.

Perhaps so.

But if those investors live in or near Southern Company�s domain, their money may not do them any good when they sicken and die from breathing Alabama Power Company�s or Georgia Power Company�s coal plant pollution -- the single most significant source of periodic dirty air advisories in Southern Company territory.

So, one may logically ask, why would an upstanding corporation like Southern Company operate such dangerous coal plants -- plants that destroy the quality of life and, indeed, life itself all over the Deep South?

The most obvious answer is one of simple corporate greed -- a desire to expand and grow with the additional investors and greater stock dividends that can only come at the expense of plowing record profits back into plant modernizations and pollution abatement equipment that has been available for a quarter of a century at least.

It would seem that Southern Company directors have, over decades, chosen profit and greed -- an enviable rating on the NYSE -- over the quality of life and the health of those living around these coal smoke belching, fly ash spewing assembly line coal plants from hell that have been thrust into out midst because of our insatiable �need� -- much of it engendered by Madison Avenue -- for more and more electricity.

There is an element here reminiscent of a rabid dog this writer once witnessed in rural Alabama. The poor creature was chasing his tail endlessly in the summer heat, accomplishing nothing.

The citizenry of the Deep South are trapped in an equally fruitless exercise as they race headlong into their present coal-burning binge.

The more pollution Southern Company plants produce, the more air conditioning and indoor living accouterments their customers demand.

And the more electricity their customers burn to support their lavish indoor lifestyles, the more coal Southern Company must burn to satisfy the demand for electricity.

So, what, if anything, can be done to clean up coal-fired steam plant emissions in Southern Company territory?

By way of a simple answer, technologies have been available for decades to clean anywhere from 70-90 percent of fly ash and sulfur dioxide emissions from flue gases. That would be a starter.

And technologies have been made available more recently to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions and also carbon dioxide and mercury outputs.

But, again, these alterations of smoke stacks and burners are expensive and the capital outlays involved cut into profits. In the best capitalist tradition, the boys at Southern Company/Alabama Power/Georgia Power have for decades chosen profits over cleaner air and water and better health for people living around their plants.

The coal burning steam plants cited in this article are in many cases old plants that were �grandfathered� in when the Clean Air Act of 1970 was passed by the U.S. Congress. Such plants were exempted from ever-stricter pollution standards to be enforced by the EPA during the decades after 1970, because plant owners had promised to modernize the old plants in a reasonable time period. But 37 years later Georgians and Alabamans are still waiting for those promised modernizations while energy corporation CEOs sit on their hands, leave the polluting plants alone, and make all of the money they can.

But there is an end in sight. Or at least the prospect of small incremental improvements for those of us that can survive three or more additional years of breathing the poisonous soup now hovering specter-like over our cities and our life prospects.

A deadline for attaining EPA air quality standards to limit exposure to fine particle pollution (PM2.5) will take effect in 2010. These standards were established in 1997, and upheld by a unanimous Supreme Court decision despite fierce opposition from the power industry and business lobby.

One by one, energy companies are being forced reluctantly -- kicking and screaming, figuratively -- to at least promise to clean up their stack emissions.

Well, some are, at least.

There is a lackadaisical asymmetry in Southern Company pronouncements about installing scrubbers by 2010, with some plants indicating that they will be �planning� a scrubber installation in 2008 with an expectation that the equipment will be on line by 2010, while others within the Georgia Power and Alabama Power �Dirty 9� have made no commitment yet.

(Scrubbers are giant precipitators that, using various technologies, cause fly ash, sulfur dioxide and other flue gas pollutants to remain in the plant rather than escape into the atmosphere.)

Management at Georgia�s world class polluting Bowen plant in Cartersville indicates that they will be planning scrubber construction in 2008, with construction to be under way in 2010.

In Alabama, Alabama Power�s E. C. Gaston plant will begin construction of flue gas filtration equipment in 2008, we are promised.

Back in Georgia at Carrollton, Georgia Power�s Wansley plant will begin to plan for scrubber construction in 2008, the public is told.

Alabama Power�s Gorgas plant�s management has gotten serious about pollution abatement, planning for construction of scrubbers to begin in 2008.

And Alabama Power�s James H. Miller, Jr. plant will see planning for abatement equipment construction begin in 2008, it is said.

But there is no word yet that four other Southern Company facilities -- Barry in Alabama, and Scherer, Harllee Branch. and Yates in Georgia -- have any plans to seek to meet the 2010 EPA deadline for fly ash reduction.

And lest the Southern Company�s present public relations campaign about their �commitment to the environment� -- the one that shows children and frogs and clean water behind a terrible coal plant cooling tower -- be taken too seriously, remember that these people have done nothing for decades to reduce the deadly pollutants we are all breathing.

The technology they are now willing to install because of an EPA deadline has been available since the 1970s. Why did a generation of southerners have to grow up breathing dangerous poisons that compromised their health and possibly their longevity?

How many people have suffered asthma all of their lives because of these pestilential coal plants?

How many elderly Alabamans and Georgians died prematurely because of these stinking coal plants?

And how many fortunes were made by Southern Company CEOs while we all suffered unnecessarily from their unfiltered coal smoke and fly ash that compromised our vistas and our health?

Never permit the Southern Company to turn their forced clean up of some of their plants into a public relations bonanza.

They are doing as little as possible as late as possible after making as much money as possible before doing anything at all.

Notes on the health and environmental effects of various coal smoke constituents

Sulfur Dioxide

Power plants, especially those that burn coal, are by far the largest single contributor of S02 pollution in the United States, accounting for approximately 67 percent of all S02 emissions nationwide. Sulfates (from S02) are major components of the fine particle pollution that plagues many parts of the country, especially communities nearby or directly downwind of coal-fired power plants.

Sulfur dioxide also interacts with NOx to form nitric and sulfuric acids, commonly known as acid rain, which damages forests and acidifies soil and waterways.

Harvard School of Public Health studies have shown that S02 emissions from power plants significantly harm the cardiovascular and respiratory health of people who live near the plants. According to EPA studies, fine particle pollution from power plants causes more than 20,000 premature deaths a year.

Carbon Dioxide

Carbon dioxide, one of several greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, is released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal), wood, and solid waste are burned.

Power plants are responsible for about 40 percent of all manmade C02 emissions in the nation, and unlike emissions of S02 and NOx, the electric power industry�s C02 emissions are steadily rising.

Power plant C02 emissions are directly linked to the efficiency with which fossil fuels are converted into electricity, and coal-fired power plants are inherently inefficient.

In a typical power plant, only about a third of the energy contained in coal is converted into electricity, while the remainder is emitted as waste heat. In fact, coal-fired power plant efficiency has remained largely unchanged since the mid 1960s.

Oxides of Nitrogen

Electric utilities account for 22 percent of all NOx emissions in the U.S. Ground-level ozone, which is especially harmful to children and people with respiratory problems such as asthma, is formed when NOx and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react in sunlight. NOx also reacts with ammonia, moisture, and other compounds to form fine particle pollution, which damages lung tissue and is linked to premature death. Small particles penetrate deeply into sensitive parts of the lungs and can cause or worsen respiratory disease such as emphysema and bronchitis, and aggravate heart



Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of mercury air pollution, accounting for roughly 40 percent of all mercury emissions nationwide.

Mercury is a highly toxic metal that, once released into the atmosphere, settles in lakes and rivers, where it moves up the food chain to humans.

The Centers for Disease Control has found that roughly 10 percent of American women carry mercury concentrations at levels considered to put a fetus at risk of neurological damage.

Coal-burning power plants operated by Southern Company�s Georgia Power and Alabama Power companies, their rankings amongst the top 50 dirtiest power plants in the United States, and their contributions to the air around them of sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, and mercury . . .

E. C. Gaston -- Southern Company/Alabama Power (Shelby County southeast of Birmingham on Coosa River)

S02 -- 7th in nation -- 127,658.4 tons annually

Hg (mercury) -- 9th in nation -- 1,025 pounds annually

NOx -- 18th in nation -- 25,372.3 tons annually

C02 -- 44th in nation -- 12,234,048.4 tons annually

# # # # #

Gorgas -- Southern Company/Alabama Power (Walker County northwest of Birmingham on the Black Warrior River)

Hg (mercury) -- 15th in nation -- 924 pounds annually

Sulfur Dioxide (S02) -- 24th in nation -- 84,059.5 tons annually

# # # # #

Barry -- Southern Company/Alabama Power -- (Mobile County near Mobile on the Gulf Coast)

Carbon Dioxide (C02) -- 30th in nation -- 13,716,972.8 tons annually

Mercury (Hg) -- 30th in nation -- 666 pounds annually

Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) -- 42nd in nation -- 19,248.5 tons annually

Sulfur Dioxide (S02) -- 50th in nation -- 53,652.9 tons annually

# # # # #

James H. Miller Jr. -- Southern Company/Alabama Power -- (21 miles northwest of Birmingham in Jefferson County)

Carbon Dioxide (C02) -- 2nd in nation -- 22,509,466.8 tons annually

Mercury (Hg) -- 2nd in nation -- 1,544 pounds annually

Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) -- 34th in nation -- 20,210.9 tons annually

# # # # #

Bowen -- Southern Company/Georgia Power -- (Cartersville in Bartow County north of Atlanta)

Sulfur Dioxide (S02) -- 1st in entire nation out of 376 plants in database -- 186,470.3 tons annually

Carbon Dioxide (C02) -- 3rd in nation -- 22,156,086.2 tons annually

Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) -- 17th in nation -- 26,246.0 tons annually

Mercury (Hg) -- 18th in nation -- 874 pounds annually

# # # # #

Wansley -- Southern Company/Georgia Power -- (Carroll County, Carrollton, Georgia)

Sulfur Dioxide (S02) -- 17th in nation -- 101,546.8 tons annually

Carbon Dioxide (C02) -- 28th in nation -- 13,820,283.3 tons annually

# # # # #

Harlee Branch -- Southern Company/Georgia Power -- (Baldwin County, north of Milledgeville, Georgia)

Sulfur Dioxide (S02) -- 22nd in nation -- 90,514.2 tons annually

Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) -- 36th in nation -- 19,976.3 tons annually

# # # # #

Scherer -- Southern Company/Georgia Power -- (Monroe County north of Macon on the western edge of what is supposed to be a beautiful national forest -- the Oconee National Forest)

Carbon Dioxide (C02) -- 1st in entire nation out of 376 plants in database -- 26,040,793.5 tons annually

Mercury (Hg) -- 3rd in nation -- 1,465 pounds annually

Sulfur Dioxide (S02) -- 26th in nation -- 82,895.6 tons annually

Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) -- 47th in nation -- 18,155.5 tons annually

# # # # #

Yates -- Southern Company/Georgia Power -- (Coweta County north of Newnan)

Sulfur Dioxide (S02) -- 42nd in nation -- 66,518.9 tons annually

This writer is heavily indebted to the Environmental Integrity Project, headquartered in Washington, D.C., for the material presented in this article. The EIP website offers a wealth of information about the widespread environmental degradation and air and water pollution that have intensified during George W. Bush�s presidency.

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