April 6, 2022

Gold Dome’s ‘elephant in the room’ is no pachyderm


            You’ve heard the reference to the invisible “elephant” that lurks in a room when decisions are being made. Georgia’s Gold Dome has a mammoth animal that is a permanent fixture when the General Assembly is in session and when it’s not.

            But it’s not a pachyderm.

            Imagine hearing “clop, clop, clop, clop.”

            Is it a horse?


            Imagine, again, a much slower, “clop … clop … clop … clop.”

            Here’s a clue. Also imagine an occasional “mooooooooo.” That’s right. The hooves striking the asphalt around Georgia’s state Capitol are bovine, but they belong to no ordinary cow. It’s a “sacred cow,” apparently an untouchable sacred cow. With a wave of its horns, every environmental decision made by our state’s lawmakers is influenced.

            Study the House’s and Senate’s natural resources and environment committees. Nothing moves forward without an approving “moo” from the Georgia Power Company or its parent, the Southern Company. You don’t have to be the fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes to figure that out. Holmes would opine, “They don’t call it Georgia Power for naught, my dear Watson.”

            Consider the just-finished 2022 session. Last year, Rep. Vance Smith (R-District 133), was co-sponsor of a measure to require Georgia Power do a better job of managing its millions of tons of toxic coal ash. Mountains of the poisonous waste are sitting, near streams and in unlined pits, leaking into groundwater.

In a surprising move, Rep. Lynn Smith (R-Newnan), no relation to Vance and chair of the House committee on natural resources and environment, was also a sponsor. That was encouraging, but read on.

            Over in the Senate’s counterpart committee, the bill languished. The commonsense measure was expected to be back in play in 2022, but the chairman, Sen. Tyler Harper (R-Ocilla), was apparently too busy running for state agriculture commissioner to rankle Georgia Power.

Meanwhile, Rep. Lynn Smith seemed to be content to let the utility keep “kicking the can down the road.” An irony that Sen. Harper ignored is that most of the groundwater tainted by toxic coal ash is in rural Georgia, where farms are.

            This is not a new Gold Dome topic, and I am not a legislative pinball wizard. But here’s what appears to have happened this year. Rep. Lynn Smith believed that the bill was premature, based on the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s (EPD) evaluation of the new federal rules on coal ash.

She wants EPD’s director, Rick Dunn, to be the decision-maker versus the Georgians elected to run the committees’ namesake—natural resources and environment. While legislators are pointing fingers at each other for the bill’s failure, they aren’t pointing at the “sacred cow.” I am no Sherlock Holmes, either, but I see hoofprints all over this.

            Rep. Lynn Smith, who has gigantic mounds of coal ash in her community’s backyard at Georgia Power’s Plant Yates, has been a faithful herder of the “sacred cow’s” wants and wishes. Please allow me to digress.

 We shouldn’t overlook a different—but similar—decision she made regarding whether to let Alabama’s Twins Pines mine on the fringe of America’s one-of-a-kind natural wonder—the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Rep. Smith disrupted the nonpartisan momentum of a proposed bill—signed by 14 legislators—that would protect the fragile ecology of the Okefenokee Swamp.

Without warning, she balked and passed the power to Director Dunn. If you have opinions on the proper handling and storage of toxic coal ash and/or the fate of the Okefenokee, here’s how to contact Richard E. Dunn, EPD director: MLK Jr. Drive, 14th Floor East Tower, Suite 1456, Atlanta, GA 30334-9000 or call 404-656-4713. Email: askepd@gaepd.org.

Now back to that clop … clop … clop … clop.

Over and over, I will keep saying, “Beyond keeping our lights on, Georgia Power does a multitude of magnificent things.” But that doesn’t give the behemoth utility the right to decide what’s best for Georgia’s natural resources and environment.

Georgians should bellow, “Clip the horns on that public-be-damned ‘sacred cow’!”