By Sam Burnham
This story was born atop a wood table alongside gas station food. I'm not talking the gas station biscuits we've discussed on Twitter, I'm talking country fried steak, mashed potatoes with gravy, and Fordhook Lima beans. But this isn't a food critique. So I'll shelve that talk for now.
The establishment in question sits adjacent to a paper mill and coal-fired power plant. So just about everyone else in there eating was driving some sort of truck. Some guys haul pulpwood in and others hauling coal ash out. That is where the story got interesting. A conversation on outgoing coal ash, some headed to become a cement ingredient, the rest to specially designed landfills, grew into this article.
As we talk about jobs and the land we live in, the rivers we fish on, the air we breathe, and what we leave our kids, I think this is a discussion we need to have. We don't need a lot of Greenpeace slogans or chanting or left-wing politics, but we do need some realistic talk about this coal thing. In all the talk of President Trump ending the War on Coal it is easy to pick a side, Left of Right and stand there. It is another to see what this means in reality and make a decision independent of political parties altogether.
So I'm looking at one plant. Just a small portion of a major utility in The South. Plant Hammond in western Floyd County, Georgia came on line back in the 50's. It was pretty advanced for its time and helped to electrify rural areas of Georgia in the post-war era as well as providing some solid, good paying jobs in the northwest Georgia area. But technology has changed. The Southern Company has begun to diversify its generation facilities. Hammond has become a sort of peak usage reserve generation plant. Basically, they only operate when there is the heaviest use on the system. Often when they fire up Hammond's boilers it's to meet demand for The Southern Company's customers in Mississippi or Alabama. It may even be to sell power to another agency such as Oglethorpe Power or perhaps a local co-op.
The aging plant is just not vital to Georgia Power's operations any longer. As the road is being cleared for expansions to continue on nuclear fueled Plant Vogtle and natural gas becomes more affordable and easier to access than coal, modernizing a plant like Hammond starts to make less and less sense for a stockholder operation like the Southern Company. It's not a big secret that Hammond is close to joining sister facilities such as Plant Yates and Plant Kraft in being decommissioned and demolished. At normal operation, the coal pile at Hammond sat high and level from one end to the other - 30 days of coal for regular operations. This week a meager pile sits at the front end, just under the chute, while a small stack remains for the length of the rest of the pile. A rough guess at the size suggests it might last 4-5 days.
But here is one major reason that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Coal ash. This is a broad term being given to the solid byproduct of burning coal for power. The new air quality scrubbers take the particulates out of the exhaust from the plants. This material used to fly up the chimneys and out into the air high above the plants to be scattered by the wind. This material is now collected and hauled off on dump trucks to be dumped. This is an additional cost to the use of coal in generating electricity. This makes natural gas and renewables more attractive since the byproducts are easier and cheaper to deal with.
And let's face it, I don't really want to be breathing stuff you can haul in a dump truck. I also would prefer that it isn't necessitating landfills and eating up real estate that could have much better purposes. So the old way is not a great choice and the new way might be even worse. This is not helping me want to see a coal-fired revival. To be honest, I don't think it is making the southern Company want to see it either. They are following market pressures and real estate prices into a future in which coal just doesn't make much sense.
And I know that there is a concern for the miners and the life that they've led as well as their prospects for the future. That is a very real concern that those of us who care for the people of rural America will have to deal with. But I'm afraid the miners and their families have found themselves as pawns between rival factions for their own gain and never them pawns'. Same old story we've always heard. Finding an economy to help these folks make their own way seems to be a better option.
Honestly, I don't think it matters if the Clean Power Plan stays or goes. I think it is just a political football for the two factions to kick around to make us think they are doing something. In reality, they're just wasting our time and money. The point is, coal is on the way out of the electricity business. And that's just reality.
I leave with the words of John Prine singing of a place close to his heart and a land that will never be the same. I used to think it was environmentalist whining. I know better now.
When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there's a backwards old town that's often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.
And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away
Well, sometimes we'd travel right down the Green River
To the abandoned old prison down by Airdrie Hill
Where the air smelled like snakes and we'd shoot with our pistols
But empty pop bottles was all we would kill.
Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.
When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I'll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin'
Just five miles away from wherever I am.
By Sam Burnham
While the mainland was either taking a knee or cussing about the people taking a knee, the people of Puerto Rico were running around int the dark try to find something to feed their kids.I was blindsided today by stories of American citizens sitting in a sweltering airport waiting on relief flights to arrive. They were too scared to go outside where it was noticeably cooler because they might miss out on the relief flight. There are also stories of people lined up at depleted gas stations, just waiting for a tanker to arrive to fill up the empty storage tanks. This is not some random third-world country were talking about. These are American citizens.
Without going into a major history lesson, Puerto Rico, like our federal government, is loaded down with debt. With a struggling economy and crumbling infrastructure, they weren't really ready for the lesser impact of the season's earlier storms. They we most definitely not ready for Maria.
But I read an article from the New York Times Monday night and it just slapped me. I was sitting there staring at all the things ABG stands for lying in crumbles on the ground in Puerto Rico. I knew it was rough. I knew the storm had hit them and their electrical grid was struggling. But when I saw this quote by Jose A. Rivera, a farmer in Puerto Rico, it hurt my heart, made me feel just terrible. “There is no more agriculture in Puerto Rico. And there won’t be any for a year or longer.” I'm sitting here looking at a Spanish-speaking version of South Georgia that has just been decimated in a matter of hours.
Puerto Rico has a four century history of agriculture. They industrialized after World War II, just like the rest of America. That industrial economy collapsed, just like the rest of America. But Puerto Ricans went back to the farms. They were having a bit of a farm-to-table renaissance and agriculture was becoming a way of life for many people once again. While the island still has to import 85% of its food, they were on a track to lessen that. If their food production allowed them to begin to sell that food (plantains, bananas, sugar, coffee, etc) to the mainland, it could help offset the cost of the food they have to have shipped in. This could become a major industry for the island.
But the storm leveled all the agriculture they had, Trees are gone and their produce with them. Even if they started back today, which they can't, they would still be months, perhaps years, from being back on the right track. They have got to get the storm and the destruction behind them so they can begin to rebuild. With their economy as it is, they can't do that alone. They are going to have to completely rebuild their electric and telecommunications grid. They are going to have to rebuild the majority of homes and businesses. Most of the island is starting from scratch.
The government is sending aid and that's great but 1) it's the government and 2) it's the government. So here are some handy-dandy links to reputable charities working on relief to Puerto Rico if you'd like to help these folks get some more help getting on their feet. I think they want to walk on their own, let's just help them stand back up:
United for Puerto Rico (led by the First Lady of Puerto Rico)
Hispanic Federation "Unidos"
Catholic Relief Services
Save the Children focuses relief on families with children
By Sam Burnham
I got a bit of a shock the other day when I came across a Rome News-Tribune story that reported that there were over 700 students that were considered homeless in the Rome City and Floyd County school systems. Considering that these two school systems instruct approximately 16,000 students, that's roughly 4% of the student population that is homeless. This sounds like a small number but both of these systems have multiple schools with fewer than 700 students. Technically you could build a mid-sized school in one of these systems with 700 students. That got my attention.
But then my wife reminded me of the homeless student standards. On the first day of school, among all the other paperwork our kids brought home were forms to ask about the housing arrangements of students. These are the forms used to compile the data. There were questions about the parents being employed in agriculture. Questions about the permanence of the students' current living arrangements, and several more. This is how the homeless student totals are compiled. There is different criteria that classifies a student as homeless. So just because a student is classified doesn't mean they are sleeping in a car, a park, or under a bridge. The parent(s) may be migrant workers, there may be a living arrangement with friends or extended family, the students may be living in a county other than the one in which they attend school. So the numbers may be somewhat skewed.
That is not to say there is not a serious problem with homelessness in Georgia.
In 2014 the Macon Telegraph reported that neighboring Houston County had 327 homeless students during the 2013-14 school year. 63% of these students were living with extended family or friends. 25% were living in transitional housing such as motels or RV parks. 12% were living in shelters such as the Salvation Army Safe House or the Duke Avenue Homeless Shelter in Warner Robins.
There was also a 2015 story in the Tifton Gazette that discussed problems in Tift and Effingham Counties. The Gazette highlighted a group called Family Promise, a New Jersey-based organization that works alongside faith-based groups, mostly local churches and volunteers from those congregations. Families are housed in Sunday school classrooms that otherwise sit empty six days of the week. These families receive services that result, according the the Family Promise website, in 74% of the participants finding permanent housing arrangements. Family promise has programs in several Georgia counties, including eight that could be considered rural.
Rural counties in Georgia have a problem with homelessness. It may not be the type of homelessness we usually think about It's easy to buy into the stereotypes of homeless people living under bridges and begging for change in the shadows of Atlanta skyscrapers. It's another thing altogether to think of a kid trying to become an educated adult in a homeless shelter in Tifton or Rincon. That's not to downplay Atlanta's homeless problems, it's just pointing out the reality that it's not just a big city problem.
While there are people rising to the occasion and seeing success in helping people get back on their feet, it's frustrating to know that the economy in rural Georgia is struggling the way these numbers suggest, especially considering our recent story about agriculture is the top industry in Georgia. These rural counties are producing substantially to our economy but it isn't keeping the people who live in these counties out of poverty. And a drive through rural Georgia is often the only research you need to see that poverty is a problem there.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, a typical home in rural south Georgia was more than just a shelter for a family. The typical home was a self-sustaining organism in which a family provided for all their own needs. By today's standards it was still poverty, no doubt about that. But the family raised their food, built their shelter, provided their own entertainment, and, if times were good, had enough to sell or trade for a few luxuries. The humble house was often a one bedroom structure with a loft and a porch. The parents had the bedroom, the daughter slept in the loft away from predators and such, and the sons, if the weather was reasonable, slept on the porch. If the weather was less than cooperative, the boys slept in a common area in the house. The family all worked together to make sure the home worked. Again, not prosperous by our standards but they had a home.
It stands to reason that a century of economic and technological advancement would have improved this model to make it more profitable, more feasible, and more of a reality for the people of rural Georgia. But now we have families, often single mothers and their kids according to the statistics in the articles mentioned earlier, that find themselves in motels or RV parks trying to survive. Our economic model and the expectations of society have changed many homes into simple domiciles that produce nothing but what money can be gleaned from a paycheck earned by working for someone else, if they are fortunate enough to find work in such an economically challenged area. While reality means that not everyone can operate a small business or farm, why is it not a better option for people in rural areas? If Georgia is going to spend thousands of dollars on sports stadiums, worthless streetcars, recruiting programs for major industries, and who knows what all else, why can we not allocate better resources to educational programs to produce workers for our biggest industry? Why do we not work to change the stigmas and expectations within our society that work against the economics of rural Georgia? If we are living in a world of progress why do we find ourselves not progressing?
We need solutions. What we have been trying is not working. And if we consider that the answers to our problems with energy, medicine, food security, food deserts, and the supply of resources that our other industries need to thrive may all be lying in a fallow field in rural Georgia, then we are wasting time. It is ridiculous that the economy in our economic breadbasket is under-performing. That has to change.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire