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.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire