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Southern culture on the skids

Enviros, scientists and regulators jab at its every move, but Southern Co. says it's doing all the right things


Arriving at Georgia Power's largest electric plant is something like visiting Stone Mountain.

You make your way through the entrance gate and face a massive structure that juts discordantly from the rolling, green landscape of Georgia's Piedmont.

But Plant Bowen, about 35 miles north of Atlanta in Bartow County, is not a natural behemoth. The central building, the one that houses the plant's massive boilers and massive turbines, is bigger than an airport terminal. Two smokestacks tower higher than any Atlanta skyscraper, and four curvaceous cooling towers are so big, they look as if they could swallow blimps for breakfast.

Pipes, tubes and ducts twist for miles inside the plant's guts. That they somehow work with machinery the size of small houses is impressive, especially considering Bowen produces 20 percent of all of Georgia Power's electricity and is the fourth-largest producer of electricity in the country.

You have to either go inside the plant office, or take an elevator 13 flights up and walk up two more flights to the roof to chat. The drone of combustion and machinery is so loud that everyone below must wear earplugs.

But the roof is a good place for plant manager Greg Everett to begin to express his frustration. He wants to correct what he sees as the myths that people have about power plants. One day, he says, he saw a car parked on the side of the road in front of the plant. He stopped to find out why.

A couple was sitting inside arguing whether the enormous cooling towers were nuclear reactors. He set them straight, and they were on their way.

"What you see coming out of there is nothing but water vapor," Everett says. "But because these cooling towers look like the ones at Three Mile Island, you've got the public thinking they're nuclear plants."

Everett believes the public gets a lot wrong about his business, especially when it comes to the actions of Georgia Power and its parent, the Southern Co.

Health studies that fault his plant for premature deaths, asthma and heart and lung disease are incomplete at best, he says. Weekly news articles pointing to Southern Co.'s heavy lobbying to weaken clean air laws are unfair. And the environmental groups that demonize the company are just plain misguided.

The criticism is coming so frequently now that folks like Everett have begun to take it personally.

"One of my pet peeves is people saying, the media saying, that we're this big bad corporation," he says. "We're here, too. We live in these communities, too. And people talk about lobbying, that we're fighting the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's clean air] rules."

Everett is leading a tour of the plant Tuesday, May 21, a day when much of the controversy surrounding Southern Co. is coming to a head. While we walked through the plant, the Tennessee Valley Authority was facing down the U.S. Justice Department in Atlanta during a crucial hearing over a federal lawsuit against the EPA's attempts to get coal-fired power plants to reduce their emissions. Southern Co. lawyers and execs, who have intervened in the case on TVA's behalf, watched in court with keen interest.

And the next day, a small group of Southern Co. shareholders was set to make more headlines when they pressed the company to rely more heavily on eco-friendly energy sources.

Despite the opposition, the Southern Co. is not some faceless, evil empire that hates the environment, Everett says. It's nothing more than a bunch of moms and dads, community people, T-ball coaches.

Everett doesn't come across as the kind of slick executive who would spin the facts at a press conference. He's a plant manager, homegrown and genuine. He's also proud of the engineering wonder that is Plant Bowen.

So are the half-dozen or so Plant Bowen employees who got up to speak at a public meeting about the pollution coming from the plant in the Cartersville-Bartow County Chamber of Commerce May 2.

In the process of fending off a room full of environmental advocates, they all mentioned three things: how active Georgia Power was in the community, how long they've personally lived in the community, and how many children they have living just down the street from the plant.

The meeting itself was held only because of those thorn-in-Everett's-side advocacy groups. Eight of them petitioned and lobbied the board of the state Department of Natural Resources for a series of such meetings. Another showdown with the anti- pollution crowd will take place in Macon May 28.

There's an even bigger coalition of advocacy groups called "Clean Up Southern Company," whose soul purpose is to raise hell about the pollution coming from Southern's plants.

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