Read part 1 of the series here.
SARGENT, Ga. – The smokestacks, more than 800 feet tall, barely peek from behind the tall pines just across from Chester Allen's farm, but to him the damage from Plant Yates' coal is plain to see.
"Dang-near everything rusts out early over here," said Allen, as he walked with his dog, Bogey, past a rusty disc harrow on the farm where he's lived for more than 30 years. His drag, steel gates, fence posts, barn roof – all rusted. Equipment this new – 15 years old, he reckons – shouldn't be this rusty.
And maybe they wouldn't be, but for the fact that Plant Yates, a coal-fired plant that opened in 1950, spewed 3.4 million pounds of corrosive acids into the air in 2011.
The impact of Yates and other coal plants in Georgia goes far beyond some rusty farm equipment. Emissions of hydrochloric and sulfuric acids, mercury and soot take a health toll. Coal trains and ash ponds weigh on the land. But soon Sargent and two other communities in rural Georgia will get a reprieve.
Forced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to meet new pollution rules, Georgia Power will shutter the coal and oil burners at Plant Yates and two other plants. Updating the facilities, the utility says, is too expensive so the plants are being switched to natural gas.
Around the country, about 600 power plants must be closed or retooled in the next two years, the result of EPA rules issued in 2011 that clamped down on coal-fired pollution.
Last week President Obama announced plans to limit carbon pollution from new and existing power plants, a measure likely to have even more impacts on coal-fired plants, including Georgia Power's eight. The Southeast is one of the nation’s most coal-dependent regions.
There is a cost to the cleaner air from shutting down these coal plants. Poor communities may breathe easier as the emissions leave town, but with them goes tax revenues and jobs. In the impoverished communities near Georgia's coal plants, as in many communities around the country, the health benefits of nixing coal aren't as obvious as the lost economic opportunities.
Pollution will drop, but taxes might rise. Residents' health might get better, but the job market in their towns will be worse.
These poor communities are trapped in coal's Catch-22.
Rural Georgia hard-hit
Around the corner from Allen's yard, rust covers cars and chicken coops in the beat-up yards on Robinson Road. Down the way, five guys are drinking beer and working on a racecar in the middle of a weekday. Across the street, a house is crumbling.
About 40 miles southwest of Atlanta, this is a hard-hit part of Georgia, no question.
Yates released 4.7 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, land and water in 2011, according to the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory database. It also emitted 33,400 tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are linked to asthma attacks and other respiratory problems. And it sent 4.2 million tons of carbon dioxide skyward, the equivalent to 824,000 automobiles.
A consulting firm hired by a Boston-based environmental advocacy group estimated that soot from Yates is responsible for 186 asthma deaths and hospitalizations per year, for instance.
Coweta County, home to Plant Yates, has lower rates of asthma-related emergency room visits than the state, according to the Georgia Division of Public Health. But federal regulators say Yates violates the national health standard for fine particles, which can lodge in lungs and trigger heart attacks and respiratory disease. The county also exceeds the federal standard for ozone, the main ingredient of smog.
Yates also has been in violation of a state clean air plan for almost three years. Plant Kraft, another Georgia Power operation near Savannah slated for closure, has a history of "high priority violations" of the Clean Air Act dating back to at least 2010.