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The politics of pollution unmasked

Raising the veil on Southern Co., the White House and one Georgia senator

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Let's say conservative studies showed that a local company contributed to more than 1,500 early deaths every year in Georgia.

Let's say that company spent millions of dollars in campaign contributions to preserve its ability to cause those early deaths.

Let's say both Georgia senators quietly used their pull to stop anyone from getting in the company's way -- and one even did so while he played coy with the very people who wanted to end those deaths.

Let's say you were talking about the Southern Co., its power plants and U.S. Sen. Max Cleland.

Three weeks ago, one man decided the federal government's reversal of its effort to clean up coal-fired power plants amounted to a moral issue. Eric Schaeffer ran the EPA's enforcement office and steered the agency in its lawsuits against Southern Co. and eight other power companies accused of increasing their pollution output illegally.

But he chucked his federal benefits and upwardly mobile career Feb. 28 because he could no longer sit by and watch decisions being made that could lead to early deaths for thousands of people. Environmentalists hailed him as a hero. His scathing resignation letter set off a media frenzy. And that prompted Sen. Joe Lieberman to hold hearings about the Bush administration's controversial environmental record.

In the aftermath, Creative Loafing has learned that even U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, a supposed friend of the environment, yielded to big-money pressure to get the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to back away from closing a gaping loophole in the Clean Air Act.

"I hope [environmentalists] don't feel this is any chink in the armor as far as his dedication to the environment is concerned," says Patricia Murphy, Cleland's press secretary. "His commitment to clean air shouldn't come into question over a letter."

Schaeffer, who was hired during the first Bush administration, worked his way up the EPA ladder to become director of regulatory enforcement. His office got together with the Justice Department in November 1999 to file lawsuits against nine utility holding companies that operate 32 older, coal-burning power plants.

One of the defendants was the Southern Co., sued in a U.S. District Court in Atlanta for spending hundreds of millions of dollars to increase power production at 10 plants without upgrading pollution controls -- a violation of what's called "New Source Review" regulations. Three of those plants are owned and operated by Southern subsidiary Georgia Power. The result of the modifications, according to the lawsuit, was that Southern's already filthy plants emitted even more pollution after they were modified.

The scope of Southern Co.'s pollution truly is startling. In 1999, the Atlanta-based utility retained its title as biggest air polluter in the nation by releasing 1.1 million tons of sulfur dioxide, 351,000 tons on nitrogen oxides, 161.7 million tons of carbon dioxide, according to a U.S. Public Interest Research Group breakdown of U.S. EPA statistics. (PIRG hasn't yet crunched those numbers for more recent years.) And, of all facilities that release air pollution in Georgia, the top three are Georgia Power's coal-fired power plants named in the EPA's lawsuit.

Other power companies named in the lawsuits were more willing to curb their pollution. By last spring, four of them had settled with the EPA, agreeing to spend close to a billion dollars each to upgrade their pollution controls.

On May 11, when the Justice Department announced the last of those settlements, Attorney General John Ashcroft called it a "victory for the environment."

For skeptics closely watching the lawsuits, it was an encouraging statement. Before he lost re-election in 2000, Ashcroft had one of the weakest records on the environment as a U.S. senator. Now, he claimed he was ready to go after the remaining defendants, which would've reduced pollutants by a total of 4.8 million tons each year if negotiations panned out.

Schaeffer was upbeat. In addition to the announced agreements, "we had some very good settlements under way with some other companies," he says. "We had some real progress being made. We were starting to swap ideas about proposals."

Now, he says, all talk about settling the suits is on hold.

The fact is that big power companies don't settle lawsuits in the same way that you or I might. While Schaeffer was at the negotiating table, the companies -- especially the biggest ones -- were changing the political landscape.

Power companies pumped $65 million in political contributions into federal campaigns. Enron Corp. was the biggest giver. Coming in second, with $1.4 million, was Southern Co.

As soon as George W. Bush moved into the White House, he assigned fellow oilman Dick Cheney to convene an energy task force that came up with precisely the plan you'd expect from the energy industry. Cheney himself met almost exclusively with industry executives and lobbyists; he sent his mid-level aides to listen to environmentalists. Sixty-four energy industry officers were invited to meet with Cheney and Energy Department staffers, while only one environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, was invited to help craft the new regulations.

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