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This story from ProPublica is shared via Hellbender Press under a Creative Commons license. Click here for the entire ProPublica story, including illustrations and photos. 

By Max Blau for Georgia Health News

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Series: Sunken Costs

Coal Ash in Georgia

Mark Berry raised his right hand, pledging to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The bespectacled mechanical engineer took his seat inside the cherry-wood witness stand. He pulled his microphone close to his yellow bow tie and glanced left toward five of Georgia’s most influential elected officials. As one of Georgia Power’s top environmental lobbyists, Berry had a clear mission on that rainy day in April 2019: Convince those five energy regulators that the company’s customers should foot the bill for one of the most expensive toxic waste cleanup efforts in state history.

When Berry became Georgia Power’s vice president of environmental affairs in 2015, he inherited responsibility for a dark corporate legacy dating back to before he was born. For many decades, power companies had burnt billions of tons of coal, dumping the leftover ash — loaded with toxic contaminants — into human-made “ponds” larger than many lakes. But after a pair of coal-ash pond disasters in Tennessee and North Carolina exposed the environmental and health risks of those largely unregulated dumps, the Obama administration required power companies to stop using the aging disposal sites.

Berry had spent nearly two decades climbing the ranks of Southern Company, America’s second-largest energy provider and the owner of Georgia Power. By the time he was under oath that day, company execs had vowed to store newly burnt coal ash in landfills designed for safely disposing of such waste. But an unprecedented challenge remained: Figuring out what to do with 90 million tons of coal ash — enough to fill more than 50 Major League Baseball stadiums to the brim — that had accumulated over the better part of a century in ash ponds that were now leaking.

Georgia Power would have to shut down roughly 30 ponds from the Appalachian foothills to the wetlands near the Georgia coast. After draining all the ponds, the company would have two options for disposing of the highly contaminated dry ash left behind: It could either move the ash into a landfill fitted with a protective liner, or pack the dry ash into a smaller footprint and place a cover on top — leaving a gaping hole in the ground that, in some places, would be the larger than Disneyland. The former would cost more but vastly reduce the possibility of toxic leakage; the latter lowered expenses but would perpetually risk contaminating drinking water in neighboring communities.

As scientists had grown more aware of the threat posed by coal ash, Southern states like Virginia and North Carolina had forced utilities to move ash into lined landfills. But Georgia was something of an outlier. The state historically was known as a coal ash capital, a place where lawmakers touted their pro-business bona fides by denouncing regulations, and Georgia Power had a track record of delaying or blocking efforts to regulate pollution. The company was lobbying hard for the cheaper option.

Of course, the $7.3 billion price tag wasn’t all that cheap. Sitting on the Georgia Public Service Commission’s witness stand, Berry and his top deputy spent hours arguing that the whopping costs of cleaning up Georgia Power’s coal-ash ponds should be passed along to its customers. If Berry could persuade the regulators that the costs were both “reasonable” and “prudent,” the company could tack a monthly fee onto the bills of 2.2 million residential customers for decades to come, which would work out to each customer footing $3,300 of the bill to clean up the company’s mess. If he failed, the commissioners could effectively force Georgia Power to eat those costs — a major blow to investors in a publicly traded company that has annual operating revenues of over $8 billion.

During Berry’s testimony, PSC commissioner Tim Echols said he has concerns about putting ratepayers on the hook for the costs of cleaning up the ash ponds — and whether Georgia Power is spending more than it has to. “This is enormously expensive,” he said.

Berry didn’t mention that the cleanup costs could increase by billions of dollars if Georgia’s environmental officials adopted the safer standards used by neighboring states. Anticipating Echols’ next question, Berry said that Georgia Power’s $7.3 billion plan was the “most cost-effective way” to comply with coal-ash regulations.

“If we were to do something less,” Berry added, state environmental officials “would force us to go back and redo what we did not do right the first time.”

Had those five energy regulators swiveling in their chairs asked more pointed questions about Georgia Power’s waste-disposal practices, Berry would have been pressured to tell a long-hidden story about ash and avarice. In the second half of the 20th century, Georgia Power had saved money by building some of America’s largest coal-ash ponds without a protective liner underneath, despite knowing some of the risks of contaminating residents’ drinking water. It had also sought to do as little as possible to protect drinking water that’s now believed to be tainted by coal-ash toxins.

A yearlong investigation by Georgia Health News and ProPublica has revealed that Georgia Power and its parent company have spent millions of dollars on lobbying tactics to dodge billions in environmental costs. Thousands of pages of previously unpublished documents obtained by the news organizations shed new light on how Georgia Power leveraged political tensions to reduce a massive financial liability that could decimate its bottom line — and how it pushed disinformation to distance itself from patterns of sickness among people who lived near its coal-ash ponds.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Great Smoky Mountains National Park Air Resource Specialist is seen at the Look Rock air quality research station.   Courtesy National Park Service

The lack of regional and local vehicle traffic during the pandemic greatly reduced measurable pollution in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This is your Hellbender weekend read, and the first in an occasional Hellbender Press series about the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the natural world

Great Smoky Mountains National Park shut down for six weeks in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. Recorded emissions reductions during that period in part illustrate the role motor vehicles play in the park's vexing air-quality issues. The full cascade of effects from the pollution reductions are still being studied.

Hellbender Press interviewed park air quality specialist Jim Renfro about the marked reduction of carbon dioxide and other pollutants documented during the park closure during the pandemic, and the special scientific opportunities it presents.  He responded to the following questions via email.

Hellbender Press: You cited “several hundred tons" in pollutant reductions during an interview with WBIR of Knoxville (in 2020). What types of air pollutants does this figure include? 

Answer: Carbon dioxide (CO2) would be most of the tons reduced from the lack of motor vehicles in the park during the park shutdown because of the pandemic.  Carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx),  volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and particulate matter are other emissions that were lower, but to a much lesser extent.  

HP: During what time frame?

A: It was based on when the primary park roads were closed, for about a six-week period from March 24 through May 9 (2020) 

HP: Was this based on data collected at the Look Rock air-quality monitoring station or monitoring sites throughout the park? 

A: No, it was estimated reductions in air emissions (tons) from using the park's emissions inventory for criteria air pollutants and greenhouse gases coupled with the reduction in park visitation data for the period of the park shutdown.

HP: Was this a result of reduced auto travel in the park? 

A: Yes. 

HP: A lot of emissions, of course, come from outside of the park. Was the improvement in air quality also a function of reduced pollutants coming from outside the park? 

A: The documented reduction was with emissions, not air quality. Air quality analysis is still under way to look at changes in air pollutants. 

HP: What do you think the primary reasons for the air quality improvements were?  

A: If there were reductions in air pollutants (and that is still being analyzed by EPA and NPS Air Resources Division), it was due primarily to the reduction in motor vehicle emissions in and near the park (and regionally).

HP: Did you purposefully set out to quantify the pandemic’s effect on air quality, or was this an “accidental” discovery? 

A: We did not purposefully set out to quantify the pandemic's effect on air quality. Monitoring efforts continued during the pandemic and provided a unique and unexpected opportunity to characterize the differences in air emissions (from park closures and limited motor vehicle emissions) and air pollutants (which will take longer to look at laboratory analysis after quality assured analysis).

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Last year, Knoxville Utilities Board committed to supplying 20 percent of its electricity through solar generation by 2023, through Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Green Invest program. By 2023, KUB will provide 502 megawatts annually of new-to-the-grid solar power to its customers. This represents the equivalent of enough energy to power 83,000 homes. The $1.63 million cost will be paid by a credit provided by TVA as part of its 20-year partnership agreement with KUB.

The announcement was celebrated by solar energy advocates, including the Tennessee Solar Energy Industries Association, but some environmental watchdogs maintain there are issues with the contracts that local power companies had to enter into with TVA to participate in Green Invest.

For the past few years, TVA sought 20-year rolling contracts with local power companies. KUB’s previous contract with TVA was for five years. In August 2019, TVA presented the Knoxville Utilities Board with a 20-year contract that would provide a credit of 3.1 percent on wholesale base rates and flexibility to allow up to 5 percent of KUB power to come from local sources.

Stephen Smith, who holds a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Tennessee, has served as the executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) since 1993. Founded in 1985, SACE promotes responsible energy choices in the Southeast.

(Smith is on the board of directors of the Foundation for Global Sustainability. Hellbender Press is an independent project of FGS).

“Any time solar is being built, that’s a positive thing,” Smith said. But, he added, “It’s important to put it into context. What has [KUB] given up by entering into what we consider a Draconian contract?”

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Tina Brouwer, left, and Ranger Clare Dattilo look for birds Jan. 3 at Seven Islands State Birding Park.  Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

Dozens join annual avian survey at Seven Islands State Birding Park

Kodak, Tennessee — State park interpretive ranger Clare Dattilo led the group slowly but surely across the muddy winter landscape of Seven Islands State Birding Park, taking note of birdsong and investigating undulating flashes of quick color against the backdrop of green cedars and nude tree branches and grasses flattened by the weight of a recent snow.

Even in the dead of winter, woods and fields are filled with life.

The birding park hosted both trained ornithologists and casual birdwatchers to scope out species to include in the annual Audubon Society Christmas bird count. Dattilo was tallying her numbers with a couple of journalists and a long-time friend from college.

Bluff Mountain loomed to the east. The crest of the Smokies, in commanding view on clear days, was shrouded in freezing fog. Ring-billed seagulls flew high overhead while a couple of Carolina wrens chirped in the underbrush.

Bursts of bluebirds and cardinals yielded glimpses of color. Flycatchers and downy woodpeckers concentrated on their rhythmic work amidst the barren winter branches of the huge oaks, hickories and maples that spread across the ridges of the park and into its small hollows. White-tailed deer browsed silently, undeterred and seemingly and correctly unbothered by the birdwatchers.

“The Christmas Bird Count is important because it's a long-running bird census that helps scientists understand the changes in bird populations over time,” Dattilo explained. “This data alerts scientists to possible issues with the health of populations which leads to conservation efforts.” 

The national count has occurred every year since 1900, when conservationists offered a more peaceful alternative to traditional Christmas Day hunting. It has since been billed the longest-running citizen-scientist project in the country.

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bales ivorybill hbThe red-cockaded woodpecker is vanishingly rare, but its true status in the wild is not known.   Courtesy Stephen Lyn Bales

'Lord God Bird' of lore, a sad reminder of what we have lost

We stood agape. Before us, on a white countertop as big as a ping pong table, lay 17 dead ivory-billed woodpeckers. They were museum specimens neatly arranged in two groups: nine males and eight females, all lined up like ears of corn in separate wooden trays. Each had a paper label attached to a leg with handwritten notation of when and where it had been collected; most seemed to date from the late 1800s. Being in the presence of so many rendered us reverently speechless.

The Knoxville History Project’s Paul James and I were in the cellar of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History at the time. Surrounding us were row after row of 10-foot, pale-green metal cabinets, lockers with wooden drawers filled with museum specimens. In addition to the 17 Campephilus principalis organized in the wooden trays before us, there was also one lone male mounted on a log for display purposes. All eighteen are part of the more than 640,000 avian specimens housed at the museum, which is in the nation’s capital cattycornered to the Washington Monument.

“We receive anywhere between one and 4,000 new specimens a year,” remarked the museum’s curator of birds at the time James Dean. “Many are donated by families that discover ‘grandfather’s collection’ stored in the attic.”   

Call it fortuitous. When Paul arranged the meeting, the ivory-billed woodpecker was this country’s most ethereal bird; although not officially pronounced extinct it had last been documented in the swamps of Louisiana over 60 years ago. Contemporary field guides no longer include the ivorybill, America’s largest woodpecker, for they have been written off as being eliminated long ago. In the 1800s, when folks caught a fleeting glimpse of an ivory-bill they’d gasp, saying, “Lord God, what a bird,” or simply, “Lord God Bird!” So, how could this magnificent bird, black-and-white, crow-sized bird with a loud “kient, kient-kient, kient” vocalization go undetected in our modern world?

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