Lessons Learned On The Job: More than half of Georgia’s population lives where it’s unsafe to breathe the polluted air.

Lessons Learned On The Job: More than half of Georgia’s population lives where it’s unsafe to breathe the polluted air.

Posted Monday, June 27, 2016

I joined GreenLaw a little over a month ago as Executive Director, and it’s been quite a learning experience. I thought, over the next couple of weeks, I might document some insights into what I’ve learned and why what we do matters.

Some background: GreenLaw is a 501(C)3 dedicated to preventing air and water pollution that endangers human health and degrades Georgia’s natural resources. We achieve these goals by providing free high quality legal and technical assistance to environmental organizations and community groups throughout Georgia. We’re one of the only public interest, not-for-profit law firms dedicated solely to protecting Georgia's air, water, land, and communities from threats to the environment. Most of our clients do not pay us, and we fund ourselves through foundation grants and individual donations.

One of the areas we focus on in particular is Clean Air & Energy. Statistics show that poorer Americans simply do not breathe the same air as those more affluent—forty-six percent of housing units for the poor sit within a mile of factories that reported toxic emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency. In Georgia, income and race are the best predictors of how polluted the environment is where you live. The places where minority and low income Georgians live are some of the most polluted areas of the state.

The health of Georgia’s citizens is threatened by air polluted with ground level ozone (aka, smog) and particulate matter. In fact, according to the American Lung Association, many of Georgia’s metro counties receive a failing grade for their air quality. Ground level ozone can cause acute respiratory ailments, aggravate or cause asthma, decrease lung capacity by 15 to 20 percent, weaken the immune system and cause birth defects. The inhalation of fine particles in smog has been linked to increased incidence of heartbeat irregularities and premature death.

When smog is at its highest levels in the summer months, children playing outside breathe 50 percent more air per pound of body weight than adults. The inhalation of fine particles in smog has been linked to increased incidence of heartbeat irregularities and premature death.

Georgia is also threatened by massive coal ash ponds, an unfortunate by-product of burning coal. We’re among the top five states storing the most coal ash in liquid waste ponds. There are 29 coal ash ponds in Georgia at currently-operating coal plants with a total area of 2401 acres or 3.75 square miles. Currently, 50,094,280 cubic yards of coal ash are being stored in Georgia ponds. This is about 10.1 billion gallons. This equates to a spill capacity ten times greater than the TVA Kingston Plant spill in Tennessee in 2008. That spill, which originated from a 40-acre pond which was reported to only have a capacity of 2.6 million cubic yards, actually spilled 5.4 million cubic yards or 1.1 billion gallons.

Georgia currently has 13 ponds that are larger than the Kingston pond.

Burning coal and other fossil fuels to generate electricity results in pollution of Georgia’s land, waters and air. Greenhouse gases from existing coal-fired power plants are the single largest U.S. source of emissions that drive climate change.

As Georgians, we have a special responsibility to reduce emissions that cause global warming because Georgia's CO2 emissions are greater than the emissions of many countries and because Georgia has the dirtiest fossil-fuel electric plant in the U.S. (Plant Scherer.)

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized new regulations to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. Prior to promulgation of these regulations, power plants were allowed to dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air. These new regulations are known as the Clean Power Plan (CPP) and were promulgated under the Clean Air Act.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a deadline of 2030 for all 50 states to cut their carbon dioxide production from electricity generation, but litigation by some states (including Georgia) to stop the CPP currently has stayed action on the CPP until the lawsuits are concluded. If the CPP survives the lawsuit, Georgia must reduce carbon emissions from its power plants from 1,600 pounds of carbon dioxide per MWh in 2012 to 1,049 pounds of carbon dioxide per MWh by 2030.

The reason GreenLaw matters is because we are advocates for clean air, clean energy and environmental justice. In the last year:

Most people don’t realize that Georgia has a pretty robust body of environmental legislation on the books. Unfortunately, the state is frequently quite lax in enforcement, usually at the expense of other communities. We often say that if GreenLaw didn’t exist, we would have to invent it. Learn more about us and our advocacy role at GreenLaw.org.

Tags: David Paule