It's Not Just AIG, Friends

04/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Want a growth industry for hard times? Try corporate cynicism.

Call me radical -- I don't think being out-of-doors should be life-threatening. Southern Company, a power company behemoth providing some 5 percent of the United States' electricity by burning coal in almost three-fourths of their 77 plants, acts on a very different premise. Maximize profits and devil take the hindmost, masterful "greenwash" aside. Sound like any newsworthy insurance giant "too big to fail" you know?

Thanks to irresponsible politicians devoted to developers, the highway lobby, industry and agribusiness -- from Atlanta's Mayor Shirley Franklin to Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, Senators Chambliss and Isaakson and all the counties, towns and municipalities stacked up between them -- I never leave our Atlanta home unless I've check the ozone and microparticulates (2.5 microns) "out there".

While we've conscientiously cut our own electric consumption by more than 40%, what remains is significantly committed to the HEPA air filtering systems we require to breath cleaner (not clean) air. Remember, I'm the guy whose asthma is entirely attributable to filthy, microparticulate-laden Atlanta air. So before I venture out for a simple walk in the park, I check for smog -- there are lots of sites now -- and for microparticulates (at "").

But when IS the air "safe"? Looking ONLY at microparticulates -- not including ozone and/or smog -- it depends on which side of the 49th parallel you ask that question!

The Canadian and U.S. governments apparently cooperate across the same agencies. They report the VERY SAME NUMBERS to anyone who's looking. Both use the same COLORS as advisories. But -- when one day recently I looked more closely -- the NUMBERS used in the "green/yellow/orange/red/purple" categories are WILDLY different between the two nations. And only the U.S.A. assigns (profoundly misleading) "words". Read it and weep:

Green ("safe") Canada 0-20 ppm / U.S. 0-50 ppm
Yellow ("moderate") Canada 21-35 ppm / U.S. 51-100 ppm
Orange ("unhealthy for sensitive groups") Canada 36-45 // U.S. 101-150 ppm
Red ("Unhealthy") Canada 46-90 ppm / U.S. 151-200 ppm
Purple ("Very Unhealthy") Canada 91+ ppm / U.S. 201-250 ppm

Remember, this is microparticulates ONLY, ozone and smog are a different subject entirely! It is distantly possible that Canadians are not as tough as Americans. More likely, Canadians value their health as well as corporate wealth.

Yesterday, the American Physiological Society released the following statement: "Accumulating evidence indicates that an increase in particulate air pollution is associated with an increase in heart attacks and deaths."

OK, so the air's dangerous in Atlanta, we'll just "get away" and go to the North Georgia mountains, right? Wrong! "Deliverance, Part II."

Any given day, those same microparticulates are regularly HIGHER in the North Georgia Mountains than in Atlanta. And if you've ever flown into the Atlanta airport and looked at our filthy "soup" that passes for air, you'll know -- THAT takes some doing ... until you factor in the years and years of Southern Company "grandfathering" itself out of regulation.

The North Georgia Mountains are downwind from the notorious (local apologists aside) Southern Company Bowen coal-burning power plant in Cartersville, GA*. In 2006, Bowen was reportedly the entire utility industry's biggest polluter in the nation. (Reuters March 18, 2008 from the Dow Jones Commodities News Select service.)

That year alone, this single Southern Company plant released 22 million pounds of toxic pollutants. And it will be 2011 before the changes forced upon Southern Company at Bowen significantly address decades of abuse. One plant. There are many, many more across the Southeast, in the four operating companies known as Georgia Power, Alabama Power, Gulf Power, and Mississippi Power. Delays even thinking about cleaning things up have guaranteed that Southern Company executives and their company's shareholders have profited handsomely, while lifeforms across the Eastern United States have suffered irreparable damage.

Well, it's not surprising that Southern Company is accountable for America's single biggest polluting plant. Southern Company, a mainstay to the Bushites, is a long-time, major supporter of the entire Republican Party of which Georgia Governor Perdue, Georgia Senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isaakson, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby and other retro-Republican Southern politicians continue to be unabashed standard bearers. Make no mistake, Southern Company's also coddled more than its fair share of elected Democrats. Footdragging's costly, but not nearly as expensive as it is profitable.

And just in case you're inclined to give Southern Company some slack because it's been forced to begin to clean up some of its very dirty act ...

This is the same Southern Company whose Georgia Power subsidiary just pushed through the Georgia legislature -- that's legislature, not simply the predictable pushover of a nominally "Public" Service Commission -- a law requiring Georgians to fund Southern Company's construction of a new nuclear power plant (a $1.6 billion involuntary loan from customers) which, with any luck, will never be built. Nice not-work if you can get it, and, if you're Southern Company, all you need is a Republican Georgia legislature and governor, courtesy of money politics. Seems that "Power" does not refer to electricity.

We're about to pay for a nuke that we may or may not live to see built or ever brought on line! And, of course, this economic disgrace completely ignores the deadly reality that nuclear power is just as terrible in its own destructive ways -- and over a much longer time-frame -- as coal-powered electric generation is. And, to be absolutely clear, "clean coal" is oxymoronic.

"Private enterprise" is great -- unless you can get a better deal, at the expense of an ill-informed citizenry. It's called "crony capitalism" or "the best government money can buy." Yes, it makes me fightin' mad. I think I'll take a walk ... or not!!

*David Whitman's Washington Monthly article "Atlanta Burning" from September, 2005, is still distressingly relevant. Thanks to a good friend for keeping it in front of us.