Here’s a question: “What does Georgia Power have in common with the greatest boxer of all time?”
To be more specific: “What does Georgia Power have in common with Muhammad Ali?”
Consider the behemoth utility’s tactics to wear down environmental critics by delaying doing the long-term and right thing with its millions of tons of toxic coal ash. Ali used the same strategy against then-heavyweight champion George Foreman. Ali scored an eighth-round knockout on Oct. 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), by using his rope-a-dope game plan.
Here’s what Wikipedia says: “The rope-a-dope is a boxing fighting technique in which one contender leans against the ropes of the boxing ring and draws non-injuring offensive punches, letting the opponent tire himself out. This gives the former the opportunity to then execute devastating offensive punches to help them win.”
Muhammad Ali is dead, but Georgia Power keeps his spirit alive by quietly snickering at its opponents using the rope-a-dope in its environmental strategy. (Remember how Ali laughed at his foes?) Ali was cocky, but he backed up his mouth with flashy footwork and fists of steel.
Georgia Power doesn’t run its mouth the way Ali did. Instead, it works quietly behind the scenes as it has done since first sending volts through its lines. By hiring the best lawyers and an army of influential lobbyists, Georgia Power spends whatever it takes to flex its muscles and get what it wants.
Rarely, if ever, does the Public Service Commission, the General Assembly or Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) balk at Georgia Power’s requests. Look at the past, and you can pretty much predict the future.
Until I read John Grisham’s Gray Mountain in 2014, I was ignorant—as most Georgians have been—about what coal ash is and its dangers. But in 2016, when trainloads of this poisonous industrial waste were destined for my hometown, I went to school in a hurry.
Georgia Power has a fleet of scientists who know exactly what’s in coal ash. Here’s a short list: arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury. There’s more bad stuff, but you don’t have to be a scientist to know you don’t want to be exposed to coal ash through touch, through breathing or in your water.
In Georgia Power’s long history of burning coal to generate electricity, millions of tons of coal ash have been stockpiled, often in leaking watery pits or ponds. To Georgia Power’s credit, the utility is stepping away from burning coal in favor of solar, natural gas and nuclear energy to keep our lights on. That’s a bold and positive step in the right direction for our people, our wildlife and our environment. No doubt, we are dependent of Georgia Power, but we are also depending on it to live up to its slogan: “A citizen wherever we serve.”
After several catastrophic coal ash spills, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking a strong stance to say: “Enough is enough.” EPA Administrator Michael Regan issued this statement: “Exposure to coal ash can lead to serious health concerns like cancer if the ash isn’t managed properly.”
No joke. Ask the people of Kingston, Tennessee, and in other unlucky places that were exposed to life-threatening spills.
So, where does the rope-a-dope strategy come in?
Georgia Power is cleaning up its act by removing much of its coal-ash slurry from unlined pits. But it’s balking at storing 100 percent of its waste in lined pits away from water. The utility plans to cap in place eight unlined ponds that are already leaking into groundwater. Its environmental plan is to simply monitor them. Apparently, Georgia’s EPD agrees to wait and see.
Our neighbors in Alabama—where Georgia Power’s parent, the Southern Company, has burned mountains of coal—is being told by the EPA to clean up its mess.
All the while, Georgia Power is Ali-like leaning on the “ropes,” taking punches and spending massive amounts on lawyering and lobbying.
Maybe it’s hoping “dopes” such as me will wear out and give up.
Or better yet, we’ll get knocked out just as George Foreman was.
Here’s a tip: “Don’t bet on that.”