Southern Co. wanted to send a strong message in January that it was cleaning up its polluting power plants. So the Atlanta-based utility company took out a full-page advertisement in Roll Call, a newspaper for Capitol Hill insiders.
"Our goal is clear," the ad said. "Increase generation, reduce emissions."
A colorful graphic trend line dominated the ad, showing a nearly 50 percent drop in Southern Co.'s pollution releases during the 1990s.
The official record, however, shows less dramatic progress.
Southern Co. plants in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida reduced releases of pollutants that cause acid rain by 35 percent during the 1990s, according to government data. The company's releases of ozone-forming emissions fell by 20 percent.
Meanwhile, the company's releases of the two other major power plant pollutants -- mercury and carbon dioxide -- rose as power generation increased.
The company now acknowledges that the ad's figures might be off the mark, saying the numbers were based on a projection. But Southern executives said the big-picture message was accurate.
"We feel good about our track record and good about promoting those things we have done," said Lee Birdsong, Southern Co.'s manager of advertising and marketing communications.
Along with the Roll Call ad, Southern Co. has used images of bunnies, fireflies and rippling water to make the case that it has answered Congress' 1990 call requiring utility companies to stop sending so much pollution into the nation's skies.
But a review of Southern Co.'s progress since the 1990 update of the Clean Air Act reveals that the company has overstated its environmental record, pollutes more than most of its peers even when using comparisons favorable to Southern, and has fought numerous federal cleanup efforts along the way.
As a result, Southern Co.'s operations continue to leave a troubling footprint across the South, one that harms the environment and plays a role in sending thousands of people with respiratory problems to emergency rooms every year.
The company's environmental record takes on added significance in a metropolitan area with already dirty air. Sometime this year, metro Atlanta's air pollution is expected to be labeled "severe" by federal regulators -- the second-worst designation and one given to only a handful of U.S. cities.
That designation could be costly to Southern Co. as Georgia's leading industrial polluter. Its Georgia Power subsidiary would face millions of dollars in fines annually by 2005 should the region fail to meet tighter federal regulations.
Against that backdrop, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examined a decade's worth of government data and documents to get a clearer picture of Southern Co.'s environmental record. The review found that:
Southern Co. says its overall compliance record is strong, but it was fined more than $400,000 for Georgia water quality violations between 1999 and 2002. Among other things, regulators fined the company for repeated large fish kills and the illegal release of millions of gallons of arsenic- and mercury-laden water.
Southern Co.'s dependence on aging coal-fired plants makes its operations dirtier than most other utility companies'. But Southern pollutes more than utilities that are even more reliant on coal. For example, St. Louis-based Ameren Corp. relied more on coal in 2000 than Southern did, but its pollution rates for nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide were lower than Southern's.
The bulk of Southern Co.'s plants are exceeding federal emissions targets -- some by a lot. Exceeding the targets is legal under a federal program that permits plants to buy or save pollution "allowances" when they exceed the targets. Critics say the company should clean up instead of relying on allowances to comply with the law.
About Southern Co.|
Electric utilities: Alabama Power, Georgia Power, Gulf Power, Mississippi Power, Savannah Electric.
Utility customers: 4 million in four states.
Other subsidiaries: Southern Company Gas, Southern Nuclear, Southern Company Energy Solutions, Southern LINC, Southern Telecom and Southern Power.
Size: Southern Co. is ranked 188 on the Fortune 500 list of the largest U.S. corporations. Listed on the New York Stock Exchange since 1949, Southern Co. has more than 500,000 shareholders, making it one of the most widely held stocks in the nation.
CEO: Allen Franklin
2002 annual revenues: $10.55 billion
Web site: www.southernco.com
Source: Southern Co.
Company executives say they work hard to protect public health, and they point to a multibillion-dollar blueprint they are following to meet future environmental regulations.
Dwight Evans, Southern Co.'s executive vice president for external affairs, said it's a mistake to judge the company solely by where it is today. He said Southern put together a 20-year plan to comply with the 1990 updates to the Clean Air Act.
The plan has already led the company to switch to low-sulfur coal at most of its plants. And it has spent over $1 billion for pollution reduction equipment, mostly for ozone-related reductions at five plants in Alabama and Georgia.
The company is projecting an additional $4 billion in capital expenditures by 2015 to update pollution control equipment to combat ozone, particulate matter and mercury.
"If you look out in the future, we think we're going to look better than a lot of companies," Evans said.
Dirtier than its peers
Because of its No. 2 ranking nationwide for electricity production, Southern Co. argues that it's only natural it also comes in second among the nation's utility companies in tons of emissions of the four major power plant pollutants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide and mercury.
Only Ohio-based American Electric Power produces more electricity and pollution than Southern Co.
A fairer way to look at the company's performance, executives say, is to examine how much pollution it creates for every kilowatt-hour of power it generates to run metro Atlanta's air conditioners, refrigerators and clock radios. The company highlights that concept in another ad, this one anchored by a drawing of an alert, adorable bunny.
"It's our goal to make every kilowatt we produce cleaner than the one before," proclaims the ad, which features logos of both Georgia Power and Southern Co.
The Journal-Constitution's review found that for two pollutants, acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide and ozone-forming nitrogen oxides, Southern Co. achieved its goal of producing cleaner kilowatt-hours during the 1990s. For two other pollutants, carbon dioxide and mercury, emissions data show that the company's kilowatt-hours became dirtier.
The government has not yet required power plants to reduce mercury and carbon dioxide emissions. But concerns about both pollutants are widespread.
In 2000, the Clinton administration announced it would begin requiring power plants to reduce mercury emissions. Regulations are expected by 2004. Mercury can cause neurological damage, especially in developing fetuses.
Congress is in the midst of a debate about whether to require utilities to reduce carbon dioxide, believed to cause global warming. In 2002, President Bush committed to reducing the rate of emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide by 18 percent during the next decade and requested that industries make reductions voluntarily.
The newspaper's analysis also found that Southern Co.'s kilowatt-hours remain dirtier than most of the company's peers, even for the pollutants that have been the focus of Southern's cleanup efforts. In a ranking of the nation's top 20 electricity-generating utility companies, based on the rate of pollution produced per unit of electricity in 2000, Southern Co. was second for sulfur dioxide, fifth for nitrogen oxides, fifth for mercury and eighth for carbon dioxide.
Southern Co.'s electricity production tends to be dirtier because the company is more dependent than most of its peers on coal, generally the most polluting fuel used to make electricity. But other companies also heavily dependent on coal produce cleaner kilowatts than Southern.
Of the five large utility companies more dependent on coal than Southern, only one had a higher pollution rate for sulfur dioxides in 2000, according to federal statistics.
Environmentalists have been strongly critical of Southern for continuing to rely on older, dirtier coal-fired plants -- and for being a heavy polluter.
"That is not a source of pride, no matter what spin they want to put on it," said John Walke, director of the clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group.
Power plant pollution attracts so much attention because dirty air causes a range of health and environmental problems, including asthma attacks, heart problems, acid rain, global warming and haze. Thousands of Georgians go to hospitals or emergency rooms every year as a result of breathing polluted air.
Whether or not Southern Co. should have done more to clean up its fleet of highly polluting coal plants is at issue today in federal court.
The company's 21 coal-fired power plants, most built from the 1950s to the 1970s, were exempted from the Clean Air Act's 1977 requirements to install modern pollution control equipment as long as the plants did not undergo modifications beyond routine maintenance.
Southern Co. was among eight utility companies the Environmental Protection Agency sued in 1999 and 2000 for failure to comply with the program intended to ensure that enlarged or modernized plants also improve pollution controls. The lawsuits, still pending, name eight Southern Co. plants in Georgia and Alabama.
While some other companies have agreed to settlements, Southern Co. has fiercely fought the suits in the courts and has pushed Congress to clarify requirements to update pollution control equipment when making other changes to its plants.
"Southern Co. feels that we have been in compliance, and we are in full compliance and that the lawsuits have no merit," said Laura Varn, a Southern spokeswoman. "That's why we're continuing through the legal course of action."
Allowance used up
One reason Southern Co. stands out for its releases of sulfur dioxide is its strategy for complying with the nation's acid rain program.
To cut down on acid rain -- which can leave lakes and streams unable to support aquatic life -- Congress in 1990 set up a unique program. The program works like a budget, giving each power plant a target for pollution releases. A plant can legally exceed its pollution budget, but only if it buys or accumulates "allowances" to cover the extra tons of pollution.
The newspaper's analysis shows that Southern Co. started out strong in the program, making reductions in emissions below the federal targets. Those early reductions were rewarded with allowances that the company could use if it exceeded pollution budgets in the future.
It did. By 2001, two-thirds of the company's plants were exceeding federal targets -- which had been lowered by the government -- and needed allowances to stay in compliance.
Sulfur dioxide emissions at Southern's E.C. Gaston Plant in Alabama were double the 2001 targets. At Plant Bowen near Cartersville, one of the nation's largest power plants, 2001 emissions were 40 percent above the targets, even though Bowen has the highest cap of any plant nationwide.
As emission targets dropped, Southern became more dependent on allowances than most of its peers. About half the nation's utility companies cut pollution enough in 2001 to meet the government's targets without relying on allowances, the newspaper's analysis shows.
Southern Co.'s strategy is "bad for the people who live near these plants," said Rebecca Stanfield, an attorney who directs the Clean Air Campaign at U.S. PIRG, a national consumer organization. "While some plants in the country might be getting cleaner, these plants are staying dirty and potentially getting dirtier."
U.S. PIRG has frequently criticized Southern Co. for not doing more to clean up its plants. One reason: Beyond what sulfur dioxide releases contribute to acid rain, which affects faraway lakes and streams, they can create local problems of haze and particulate matter.
Southern Co. says the acid rain program has been highly successful at cutting national emissions and was designed to achieve a national goal while giving companies like Southern flexibility to comply in the most cost-effective manner. Southern executives point out the company still must comply with local limits.
The company also must manage a difficult balancing act to protect both the environment and consumer pocketbooks, said Charles Goodman, Southern's senior vice president for research and environmental affairs. To charge ahead with expensive pollution controls before scientists or Congress say they are essential would be a disservice that could harm a regional economy buoyed by relatively low utility rates, he said.
"We have huge effects on our communities if the prices go up," Goodman said. "Not having a job is an environmental effect too."
Out of compliance
You may have seen Lael Corbett, a veteran Georgia Power employee who monitors Plant Hammond near Rome for environmental compliance.
Corbett is the star of a Southern Co. newspaper ad. He's also a minister, a volunteer teaching children about environmental responsibility, and the organizer of a Coosa River trash cleanup. The ad says Georgia Power's environmental philosophy mirrors Corbett's community activities.
"We're working hard to do more to protect the environment," the ad says. "After all, it's the neighborly thing to do."
Even after Southern Co.'s cleanups, living next to a power plant means living with a heavily polluting operation.
In addition to the four pollutants closely monitored because of their health and environmental effects, power plants release dozens of other toxic chemicals. In 2000, half of all toxins released by Georgia industry came from power plants, according to a review of the federal Toxics Release Inventory, to which industries must report releases of chemicals in their communities.
In 2000, Georgia Power's Plant Bowen was the nation's fourth-largest and Georgia's largest emitter of hydrochloric acid, which can irritate the eyes, skin and breathing passages. Three Southern Co. plants were among the nation's 10 largest emitters of hydrogen fluoride, another toxic substance that has similar effects.
Corbett's volunteer program cleaned four tons of trash from the Coosa River, according to the ad. At the same time, Plant Hammond on the Coosa released more than 1,100 tons of toxic materials into the air, water and land in 2000. Those releases are in addition to thousands of tons of pollutants that cause acid rain and ozone.
The toxic substances are all potentially dangerous to humans in large quantities, but a federal report to Congress in 1998 concluded that mercury was the toxin from power plants that appeared to pose the greatest public health threat. The researchers said dioxins, arsenic and nickel from plants also posed potential problems but that dozens of other toxins emitted by power plants did not appear to be endangering public health.
Some experts, however, say further study of the other toxic materials is needed.
"We take great concern in monitoring and making sure that the releases we do have do not have a significant health impact on the communities that we are in," said John Sell, a Georgia Power spokesman. "We're not going to do anything to damage the communities or our own children or our own families. Our commitment to the community is demonstrated through people like Lael Corbett."
Corbett said he felt good about helping Georgia Power highlight its environmental work.
"They're spending tons of money to reduce emissions," he said. "I think they are doing their part."
Southern Co. captures tons of the toxic metals listed in the federal Toxic Release Inventory in ash ponds adjacent to coal-burning plants. But some of those toxins were in 281 million tons of ash spilled upstream from a Rome water intake last year. The city relied on another withdrawal source after the spill.
Last July, a four-acre sinkhole in Plant Bowen's ash pond sent 2.25 million gallons of ash and water into Euharlee Creek, an Etowah River tributary. The ash contained arsenic, mercury, lead and other substances considered unsafe for stream life. The spill happened four years after a state inspector noted a sinkhole problem at the ash pond. The company cleaned up the spilled materials.
The state fined Georgia Power $31,250 for the spill.
Georgia Power paid over $300,000 in fines between 1998 and 2000 for killing thousands of fish in Lake Sinclair by improperly releasing hot water from Plant Branch, a coal-fired facility near Milledgeville.
The state also fined the company $54,000 in 2000 for water temperature violations at Plant Yates on the Chattahoochee River.
A less smoggy future?
Because power plants have so much impact on air quality, millions of people across the Southeast have a stake in Southern Co.'s approach to the environment over the next decade.
Atlanta and Birmingham already fail to comply with federal air quality standards for ozone, which brings on asthma attacks and other respiratory problems. Counties across Alabama and Georgia are projected to fail new federal limits for particulate matter.
"When you see all this haze in the mountains of North Georgia and beyond, it's a reminder that we live in a highly polluted setting," said Rita Kilpatrick, Georgia policy director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "It's hard to look at that and breathe it on a regular basis and know there are solutions."
Among the solutions, she said, would be an overdue cleanup of Southern's outdated coal-fired plants, a movement to encourage energy efficiency, and more use of renewable sources of power such as wind and water.
Evans, Southern Co. vice president, said that since he joined Southern Co. in 1970, the company and the Atlanta region had made environmental progress even as the metro area's population quadrupled. And Southern, he said, wanted to keep finding the right balance.
Said Evans: "We've had the growth, we've met the energy needs, and we think the environment is getting cleaner."
His words mirror the theme of a recent Alabama Power advertising campaign -- the rhetoric and facts of which again illustrate the mixed results and occasional overstatement of Southern Co.'s environmental efforts.
One ad claims the company cut pollution rates by 45 percent in the last decade, thereby protecting the environment while helping Alabama grow. "Who says you can't do both?" the ad says.
But the ad doesn't mention that power generation increased so rapidly that total emissions causing acid rain, ozone and particulate matter dropped by only 11 percent, not 45 percent. Also, at four of its large coal-burning plants, sulfur dioxide emissions increased rather than decreased.
And in that same time period during which Southern Co. claimed to be making advances, carbon dioxide from its Alabama plants jumped 50 percent.