We may just be in the middle of a sea change. Four years ago this week, I watched in a muggy auditorium at Macon High School as hundreds of local citizens told the Georgia Department of Environmental Quality that it was time to clean up mercury and other toxic pollutants coming from Southern Company's Plant Scherer upwind. While the DEQ agreed to hold a public forum, it had declined to hold a formal hearing, so great was the sway of Southern Company over the politics of the state. The prospects for cleanup in Georgia seemed dim -- after all Southern was said to run the state.
When the Bush administration successfully undid President Clinton's mercury-control regulations, and put their own "delay, dilute, and pollute" plan in place, Georgia looked like one of the last places where we would see cleanup. After all, Southern had spent a fortune and ten years trying to protect itself from having to clean up its huge coal-fired turbines.
But this year, as the public in Georgia began to wake up the threat of mercury, something surprising happened. Governor Perdue announced that he was considering overriding the weak Bush plan and putting his own in place. Then, this week, something amazing happened. Georgia announced that, yes, it was going to stand up to both Bush and Southern and require a very ambitious cleanup plan:
"Eighty (percent) to 90 percent of the time we go with the federal rule," said Ron Methier, the air branch chief of the state Environmental Protection Division. "But where we see an environmental need to go further ... we do. Georgia is fairly unique in that we have a lot more mercury problems than most states."
The Atlanta Journal Constitution weighed in with strong support, anticipating, I suspect, that Southern will not go gently in that clean night:
"Georgia doesn't always get high marks for protecting the environment and human health. But state officials can make top grades on this issue by adopting tougher mercury rules that will help safeguard some of our most vulnerable residents."
Now that Georgia and Idaho have joined Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and four other states in rebuffing the entire Bush clean air and mercury approach, it's clear that someone in Washington badly miscalculated -- along with the folks at the Southern Company's HQ on Peachtree Street.