Georgia Power: Be a good ‘citizen’ with toxic coal ash

Our guest columnist Dink NeSmith says pieces of environmental legislation rarely get through the House and the Senate without Georgia Power’s blessings. He wants the company to be a good corporate citizen and facilitate the cleanup of the toxic ash created by its coal-fired plants. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

As sure as salt water licks the sands of our Golden Isles, we can expect the state’s largest utility to put a squeeze on Georgia’s Gold Dome. And if mythical sleuth Sherlock Holmes were stalking the halls, he’d say, in his British accent, “They don’t call it Georgia Power for naught.”

Very few—if any—pieces of environmental legislation get through the House and the Senate without Georgia Power’s blessings. That’s nothing new. Just look at the House’s committee on natural resources and environment. This small group—chaired by Rep. Lynn Ratigan Smith—is a legendary graveyard of proposed bills that Georgia Power doesn’t favor. If the longtime chair doesn’t like a measure, it dies before discussion or vote.

You decide whether the presence of Georgia Power’s Plant Yates—not far from where she lives in Newnan—is a factor in her decision making. And who would be among Rep. Smith’s biggest campaign contributors? Again, you decide whether any of this affects what goes on in Atlanta. Georgia Power’s influence pedaling doesn’t stop under the Gold Dome. The utility’s parent—the Southern Company—is a top lobby spender in Washington, too.

Does that make me dislike Georgia Power?

Oh, no.

Who doesn’t appreciate heat in the winter and cool in the summer?

How about when storms—any time of year—knock out our electricity?

Georgia Power’s men and women are famous for saddling up in their big white trucks and riding to our rescue. (Georgia’s EMCs do the same.)

Which company is one of Georgia’s most essential gears in our state’s economic engine?

Georgia Power, of course.

And which company is a gold standard in inspiring community volunteerism?

Again, Georgia Power.

Its motto, “A citizen wherever we serve,” is evidenced by legions of Georgia Power people making a positive difference in their communities. Among my friends are dozens of Georgia Power employees and retirees. They are the best of the best citizens.

As a company, I don’t dislike Georgia Power.

My significant disappointment is the company’s overreaching influence on our state’s environmental policies. Historically, the General Assembly has jumped when Georgia Power yells, “Frog!”

The state of Georgia needs Georgia Power.

And I am among those who laud Georgia Power’s commitment to exit coal burning. That is a huge step, but that decision doesn’t remedy a gigantic problem. Georgia Power’s underbelly is coated with approximately 50 million tons of toxic coal ash.

Georgia Power wants our General Assembly to “go easy” on how the utility manages leftover waste. Many of the coal-ash ponds are unlined and near streams. In Rep. Smith’s community, there’s Plant Yates, hugged up on the banks of the Chattahoochee River. Georgia Power would like to “cap in place” those unlined pits, some of which are reportedly sitting in groundwater and leaking.

Where’s the good “citizen” in that strategy?

Georgia Power is stressing its coal-ash recycling initiatives. Again, that’s positive. Beneficial uses are being touted, such as locking it into concrete. Safe solutions are welcomed.  Dumping the coal-ash problem elsewhere is not a solution. That would be just creating another problem. Toxic coal ash that can’t be recycled should be stored in lined pits on Georgia Power property, away from wetlands and streams.

As sure as salt water licks the sands of our Golden Isles, the toxic coal-ash problem won’t be solved overnight. But if the behemoth utility would loosen its self-serving grip on lawmaking, that would accelerate environmentally safe progress.

And that’d make Georgia Power a better “citizen” wherever it serves.