Georgia Power does good -- no, seriously

Georgia Power is spending $1.3 billion to clean up its power plants in Georgia, and the bulk of that money will be spent on pollution controls for the company's dirtiest power producer, Plant Bowen near Cartersville.

Willingly installing pollution-reducing equipment is a rare move for Georgia Power, which has resisted pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Justice Department and several environmental groups to clean up its plants, which are among the most polluting in the nation.

"This will be a move to help Atlantans breathe easier," says Jill Johnson of the Georgia Public Interest Research Group. "But when it comes to Georgia Power, it seems like this is one step forward after many giant steps backward that they've taken on clean air."

On Aug. 16, Georgia Power applied for a permit to add so-called scrubbers onto two of the four generating units at Plant Bowen. The scrubbers are expected to reduce emissions by up to 95 percent of sulfur dioxide, which research has shown to be as dangerous to lungs as secondhand smoke.

Georgia Power is adding the scrubbers because of several proposed federal air pollution rules that likely will be enacted over the next six years, according to Georgia Power spokesman John Sell.

"All these things are coming to a head," Sell says. "And if we don't start now, we will never get the construction done."

Bowen, Georgia Power's electricity producing powerhouse, has long been the poster child of the company's dismal pollution record.

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: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide and mercury, a heavy metal linked to autism and other developmental disabilities.

Of the 63 lakes in Georgia that the state Environmental Protection Division monitors, 33 currently are home to fish that shouldn't be eaten regularly because of high levels of mercury. Of the state's 128 rivers, 70 have mercury contamination warnings.

In addition to the four worst pollutants, the Georgia Public Interest Research Group released a report on Aug. 26, gleaned from the EPA's most recent data, stating that Plant Bowen was ranked 12th in the nation for chromium emissions, 10th for lead, sixth for arsenic emissions, and first for acidic gases.

The good news is that besides reducing sulfur dioxide, the new scrubbers may reduce emissions of mercury by 70 percent to 80 percent, according to Sell, and acidic gases by 96 percent, according to the public interest group study.

Georgia Power's previous refusal to install scrubbers and nitrogen oxide emission controls has been at the center of a Justice Department and EPA lawsuit filed against Georgia Power, its parent company, Southern Co., and eight other utilities in November 1999.

According to the lawsuit, Southern and the other companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars to improve productivity at the plants, but failed to upgrade their pollution controls with scrubbers.

Those other companies eventually settled their lawsuits with the EPA and Justice Department and were forced to spend billions of dollars to put scrubbers and other pollution control devices on most of their power plants.

Georgia Power now is voluntarily doing what the government has been trying to force it to do for five years — at least at Plant Bowen.

Construction is expected to begin in about a year, and Sell says the company plans to eventually put scrubbers on the other two units at Bowen.

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