Crack down on the dirty South

Other states push for clean air, but not Georgia

Last week, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper announced that he intends to sue the Tennessee Valley Authority for belching out air pollution and breaking federal clean air laws.

A spokeswoman for Cooper wouldn't say whether Cooper has plans to file a similar lawsuit against Georgia Power, but North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley did warn Georgia officials two years ago that legal action would be taken if Georgia's power plants weren't cleaned up.

But if the state of North Carolina does file suit against Georgia Power or its parent company, Southern Co., it'll have to wait in line.

Over the past summer, eight states and New York City have filed lawsuits that seek to force five electric utilities, including Southern Co., to drastically reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by upgrading their pollution controls. (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Justice Department filed a similar lawsuit in 1999 against Southern Co. and Georgia Power. That lawsuit is still pending.)

Yet while Atlantans breathe some of the nation's most unhealthy air, Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker has taken no action to hold power companies responsible for their pollutants.

Baker, who began serving as attorney general in 1997, has been around long enough to know that the metro region is consistently ranked among the top cities for ozone and fine particulate matter pollution, which studies have linked to strokes and heart attacks.

Baker's spokesman Russ Willard says the attorney general won't enter the legal fray, however, because "environmental issues are up to the state Environmental Protection Division. And at no time during our discussions with them have they ever indicated that they would like to go forward" with litigation against polluters. Willard also says that attorneys general are usually prompted by state environmental regulators to go after big polluters.

That's not the case with North Carolina's Cooper, who worked with grassroots environmental groups and the N.C. General Assembly before getting approval to go after polluters. Nor did New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer wait for permission before filing his groundbreaking lawsuits against five electric utilities, including Southern Co., over the summer.

"North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper is ... effectively saying to the rest of the Southeast, 'The buck stops here,'" says the Sierra Club's Colleen Keirnan. "How unfortunate that our own Attorney General Thurbert Baker is more like Emperor Nero, who fiddles away while Georgia chokes on air pollution."

One state's attorney general filing suit against another state's power company is among the newest attempts to curb the release of dangerous pollutants. One reason attorneys general have stepped up is because the Bush administration has weakened the EPA's ability to crack down on power companies that have upped their productivity without enhancing their pollution controls.

Such power plant expansions are the basis for the North Carolina lawsuit against TVA and the Spitzer lawsuit against Southern Co. In a press conference at the time Spitzer's suits were filed, Spitzer said he was going after the biggest sources of global warming pollution in America because no one else was going to do it.

In defense of Georgia Power, company officials — who say they haven't received any correspondence from Cooper's office — have begun a voluntary cleanup at one of their dirtier plants. On Aug. 16, Georgia Power applied for a permit to add new pollution equipment to its Plant Bowen that is expected to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide by up to 95 percent.

Sulfur dioxide, research has shown, can be as dangerous to lungs as secondhand smoke. But it is not considered a major global warming gas.

Carbon dioxide is, though, and Southern Co.'s subsidiaries (Georgia Power, Alabama Power, Gulf Power, Mississippi Power and Savannah Electric) are the second-largest emitters of it in the country.

Plant Bowen, located about 40 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta, emitted more carbon dioxide than any other power plant in the country in 2002. Reports published by environmental and public interest groups over the past four years have ranked Bowen as one of the country's largest emitters of the nastiest air pollutants: nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide and mercury, a heavy metal linked to autism and other developmental disabilities.