Behind the Smoke
Posted Thursday, December 11, 2014
By Matt Berger
Pop Warner football practice is just ending at the middle school in Euharlee, GA. The coach — surrounded by fidgety 8-year olds being swallowed by their uniforms — offers his final pointers on tackling. The field is a nice one, as far as middle school football fields go. Freshly chalked hash marks and a grass/weed combination cover the ground good enough for kids to chase after a funny-shaped ball.
In the local Frankie Harris Park, a boy celebrates his birthday. Green balloons and streamers adorn the covered shelter — it’s Teenage Mutant Ninja themed, and the likeness of Rafael, Leonardo and the other turtles have made an appearance. Laughter fills the air as the kids voluntarily spin themselves in dizzying circles on the merry-go-round. The parents make what may be the wisest decision of the day: they’ll serve cake post-spinning.
At Euharlee’s Museum — next to Georgia’s oldest covered bridge and inside the town’s old cowshed — the ladies of Euharlee’s historical committee are wrapping up their monthly meeting. The agenda: Fall Fest logistics, Food Truck Friday and updates on the Lowry Mill reconstruction project. The small museum is filled with donated photos, keepsakes and heirlooms dating back to the 1840s. I’m urged by a woman — a self-proclaimed Euharlee lifer — wearing a wooden nametag to check out the back room dedicated to showcasing its rich Indian roots.
This is Saturday in Euharlee, the place 4,000 some-odd residents call home. It’s where they earn money. Where they make memories, raise children and advance their lives. Not unlike other communities throughout America, Euharleeans love their town. It’s home, and, well, home is nothing if not special. It’s your ally in growth, your shoulder in hardship and your partner in life — for better or for worse.
The people of Euharlee live their lives, and by most naked-eye accounts, live it pretty well. But make no mistake, something hangs over their heads. The elephant in the sky is Plant Bowen, a pollution monster that has ranked as high as 13th on the national dirtiest coal plant circuit.
It’s an imposing sight — a lasting image that engraves itself in my mind: jubilant kids performing touchdown dances as a pair of 1,001-foot smokestacks feverishly pump toxins overhead.
You don’t have to be a scientist or a doctor or even an environmentalist — how about just a parent or, I don’t know, a human — to understand these toxins are dangerous. The repercussions of living in their presence are real. Best case: breathing issues and respiratory problems, worst-case: a grisly, sometimes unidentifiable, cancer-related death.
Where the toxins fall — and they’re going to fall; hat tip, Isaac Newton — depends on such uncontrollable factors as weather and stability of the atmosphere. Even under the most optimum conditions — when ground level air is stable and drafts caused by thermal and mechanical effects are minimal — the polluted air has to go somewhere.
Something seemingly inconsequential — say, for instance, a slight breeze — and the fine particles of soot, heavy metals, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides — all invisible to the eye, and small enough to slip through your lungs and into your blood stream — are sent miles from where they were created.
The takeaway: what you don’t see can and will absolutely harm you — in many unspeakable ways. The numbers, provided by the Clean Air Task Force, speak volumes on the damage Plant Bowen inflicts on people who think they’re just being neighborly.
EUHARLEE GASPING FROM THE BEGINNING
Georgia Power set up smoke shop in 1975. And it didn’t come without its hiccups.
Originally, the Southern Company subsidiary wanted to do away with Euharlee’s iconic covered bridge, but as any good southerner knows, that’s no way to greet a new neighbor. A freshly made pie, absolutely. A hostile takeover of century-old landmarks, them’s fightin’ words.
The town rallied, and Southern Company eventually thought better of their plan. They decided the town could keep its treasured landmark, instead opting to build its very own bigger, badder bridge — much less quaint in design, though much more useful for carrying the plant’s 440+ commuting employees across the Euharlee River.
The town won that battle, but it’s abundantly clear who’s winning the war.
Since its inception, the plant has worked around the clock, busting its hump to produce an outrageous 14.1 million tons of carbon per year. In layman’s terms: Plant Bowen emits more carbon dioxide than 2.8 million passenger cars — every year.
It would be plenty enough if the damage stopped there, but operations inside Bowen can be just as dirty as the coal it burns.
In 2012, an explosion rocked the plant. It was an unfortunate incident. Injuries were sustained, and the people of Euharlee were terrified by what they described as feeling like an earthquake. News teams from Atlanta and beyond showed up to report the story, but facts were slow to surface. The town took to social media, praying for each other and providing their own accounts of the experience:
“I've just heard there was an explosion at plant bowen! And my sister was at her daughters home and said, it nearly burst her ear drums was sooo loud, and shook homes!” - Darlen Mike via Facebook
“I live in Taylorsville, and I posted on fb. that it sounded like a large explosion,, my home shook and it was very loud. I had no idea that it was really an explosion, sometimes they clean the smoke stacks and its very loud, so after the initial fear of the loud boom.. I just thought that might be what they were doing.. I pray no one was injured.” -Lisa Chastain Satcher via Facebook
Several terrifying hours, seventeen citations and $117,000 in fees later, OSHA deemed the explosion a user-error, due to a failure to comply with procedures.
Even more recently, Georgia Power had its wrist slapped for operating five of its coal-fired plants, Euharlee’s Bowen included, outside the bounds of the Clean Air Act. After exceeding the maximum allowed soot levels, Georgia Power is now being forced to propose a new pollution plan to the EPA.
There aren’t enough mirrors behind all that Plant Bowen smoke to hide the facts. Proponents can cite — though very curiously — the installation of multi-million dollar “electrostatic precipitators,” which certainly help remove the toxins before they leave the smokestacks, but the people of Euharlee are playing a dangerous game by believing Southern Company has their best interests in mind. Lest we forget: this is a power company. It’s not a coincidence that the power creators hold a good bit themselves. Southern Company, who has been working the laws in their favor for decades, spends more in Washington D.C. — to the tune of $15.5 million on lobbying efforts in 2012 alone — than it will ever spend on people affected by its practices.
Victims have been used, manipulated, lied to and taken advantage of — all without remorse. Just give someone from Juliette, GA the chance to tell their side of the story. These unfortunate people live in the shadows of America’s dirtiest coal plant, Georgia Power’s Plant Sherer.
Gloria Goolsby, who lived in Juliette for years – decades before Georgia Power came to town — has lost family members, her home and any sense of dignity – all due to the toxins released into land she was promised would never become a dumping ground.
“…we were young and we believed what [Georgia Power] said so we specifically asked them if that my brother in law owns several hundred acres on the other side of the road, were they going to purchase that side and they said no. And everyone out here will tell you they told them that we would never even know that they were there. Which is the farthest thing from the truth. I think it’s the biggest lie that I’ve ever been told in my life.”
The ramifications of living near the plant were beyond what they ever dreamed it would be.
“...My brother in law had a cancer that the doctors said they had never seen. The two, three children with cancer, one lives right across the road and the other lives like a mile through the woods. Practically everybody on this road has had some kind of problem or another that’s just rare. You know old people have cancer but you don’t find 3 children within 2 miles. One is one year old and one is five and one is 18.”
Take note, Euharlee.
Location, Location, Location.
At last check, 55 homes are for sale in Euharlee. That may not sound like an exorbitant amount, but consider this: Euharlee occupies less than 5.5 square miles, roughly the same size as Plant Bowen, which takes up 3,000+ acres. A closer look at the facts paints a grimmer picture: 62% of the housing inventory has been on the market for more than 100 days.
Sellers can dress up the kitchen. They can paint the siding and clean up the yard. But they can’t hide that plume of smoke floating over their for sale sign.
And so, life – albeit a risky one – goes on. There are sports to be played, children to educate and community events to organize, but all happen under the guise of normalcy. As the plumes mount, so does the devastation to Euharlee. Even on Saturday — a day off for most of the working world — residents get zero in the way of relief. The plant works overtime and the smoke billows 24 hours a day.
Saturday’s volunteer at the town museum tells me Euharlee is Cherokee for “she laughs as she runs.” It’s a beautiful name with deep significance, but, unfortunately, just another piece of the town hijacked by Plant Bowen. The she has become Georgia Power, and she’s running straight to the bank.