Barry G. Parsons

Small Win Over Big Coal

Madison, Fla.

As I write this, it's Sept. 7. The intense discussions, research and petitions of our ad hoc citizen's group, Keep Madison Clean, along with the tireless support of Ed Deaton of the Tallahassee Clean Air Coalition and Joy Ezell in neighboring Taylor County, have just brought about this morning's adoption by the Madison County Commission of our resolution against a huge coal-fired power plant for Madison.

Yet our celebration is muted. The electric utility power consortium, the North Florida Power Project (NFPP), nose to the wind, has already moved its projected point of insertion into our lives into Taylor County to a site that lies just 15 miles directly south of our county line.

The 30-mile radius from the power plant of prime pollution impact would easily cover most of our county since the prevailing winds in this delicate subtropical ecosystem come off the Gulf of Mexico from the southwest. Furthermore, the hundreds of millions of gallons of water per day required to take toxic effluent out of the facility will steadily foul several area rivers, which are already somewhat polluted, on its way down into the water table that feeds most of the counties in the Big Bend area.

Insult to injury, the energy generated by this proposed $1.4 billion 800-megawatt monster would not go to Madison or Taylor counties but to Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Orlando -- where the respective power players are quite willing to accept the electricity but not the health- and property-destroying emissions in their own backyards.

So this also means new power transmission lines running from the plant through our communities en route to those areas, with the utility's unchallengeable rights of eminent domain gobbling up swaths of our residents' lands. And, oh yes, the utility will not pay one dime of property taxes on the 2,500 acres needed for the plant itself. The corporate fossil fuel dinosaur clings to the past, squeezing out every last drop of neoconservative "free market" monopoly largess. Lots of Molly Ivins' frisks and jollities.

Later, in the hallway outside the commission chambers, Betty Johnson's husky voice growls out some grisly facts and questions as her eyes flash with outrage at the abuse of power she sees in the regional Southern States Energy Board system in which the federal government mandated regional corporations and regional transmission organizations apparently solely to promote coal plant construction with no documented need that she could find. Thus she suspects that big money from the feds rather than genuine need is pushing coal plants into the entire Southeast.

Differing in style only is the sweet, smoldering anger of Gale Dickert of Taylor County, her own quiet, determined voice, already undermined by the polluting Buckeye Paper Mill, now strained to a rasp from talking, questioning, arguing with the powerful as well as her tradition-bound neighbors so addicted to their deep fear of change. And challenge. Such as a better way to create the jobs advertised but not guaranteed by the NFPP.

Our attention now turns to the upcoming Nov. 17 non-binding mail-in referendum vote in Tallahassee, whose political effect could be key. Tallahassee's contribution for the plant is $6.4 million up front, $300 million or more by completion. But just one day after the Madison resolution, the majority on the Tallahassee City Commission, clearly working hand-in-biased-glove with the NFPP, put out blatantly deceptive language for the ballot. We'll all be working hard with our Tally allies for honest rewording. Now the local news is quoting a study ranking Florida as the 11th most mercury-toxic state in the union. Maybe Gov. Jeb Bush, with the SSEB money spigot open, is aiming for number one?

It's hard to keep perspective. So hard to keep from screaming out. I put the dark vision of smog and chronic lung disease, of birth defects and disabilities -- some irreversible -- that will affect more of our youngest children up against the visages in my mind of the quiet dignity of Lenord Bembry and Jackie Johnson and Rudy Hamrick respectfully criticizing the plant proposal and working through our options.

Of Marianne Green's gracious curiosity and passionate sense of justice as she cares for a disabled husband yet manages to attend our meetings as well as almost every county commission meeting and to read the financial pages of every issue of the local paper with her magnifying glass, looking for signs of skullduggery.

Of photogenic Lisa, staying home with the boys and gathering the disturbing facts about coal and further honing her computer and communication skills (from her research, Lisa now says that some of her politics are hanging).

Of the incredulous frustration on the roundish face of Joe Harrell, a farmer-engineer from the tiny hamlet of Lee. Disabled, Joe recently collected mounds of technical information off the Internet. He kept asking me why "they" won't pay attention to this data that so indicts Big Coal. I had reasons but no answers.

I counsel myself that these scenes are unfolding in communities across this country. That there are many everyday unsung heroes. But I have dismay matching Joe's. Why aren't those grassroots heroes all becoming Cindy Sheehans? Why can't we grab the lens of the media and focus it on this heart of America?

Barry Parsons is a writer in northern Florida.

From The Progressive Populist, Oct. 15, 2005

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