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Georgia’s Reliance on Coal Questioned Amid Climate Concerns

Climate Central's Heidi Cullen reports on the coal industry's role in Georgia, a state that gets over 60 percent of its electricity from coal, as new emissions and climate policies are crafted in Washington.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Next, a second story about carbon emissions. Congress began drafting a bill this week to reduce carbon dioxide levels. Burning coal will be a major part of that debate.

    Tonight's story is about coal and climate change in the state of Georgia. The reporter is Heidi Cullen, a climatologist and correspondent for Climate Central, a nonpartisan research group of journalists and scientists.

  • HEIDI CULLEN, Climate Central:

    Plant Scherer in the small town of Juliette, Georgia, is the largest coal-fired power plant in the country. An average of three freight trains, each over a mile long, pulled in here every day. They're filled with coal, most of it mined in Wyoming.

    Scherer is a major supplier of electricity in Georgia, a state that gets over 60 percent of its electricity from coal.

    Plant Scherer is the largest employer in Monroe County, and it burns roughly 40,000 tons of coal every day. The recent coal ash spill in Harriman, Tennessee, about 300 miles north of here, left a toxic sludge in the Emory River and increased concern about the broader environmental impacts of burning coal.

    That ash spill and what it might mean for the future of coal worries Steve Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

    STEVE SMITH, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy: We've seen huge devastation come from great ash spills that we saw late last year. Coal is a dirty business. Mountain top removal, combustion practices, and then dealing with the post-combustion waste, cradle to grave, it's a problem.

  • HEIDI CULLEN:

    Chris Hobson says there won't be an ash spillage here. He's a vice president at the Southern Company, the majority owner of the plant.

  • CHRIS HOBSON, Southern Company:

    We have been very aggressive in making sure that our facilities are as safe as they can be. And we inspect them routinely. And we feel very confident that that kind of event won't happen here in the Southern system.

  • HEIDI CULLEN:

    Today's debate about coal extends well beyond Juliette and coal ash. People across Georgia are concerned about how the state's dependence on coal could affect their lives.

  • GORDON ROGERS, Waynesville, Georgia:

    This is a cedar. And it's losing its life due to an increase in salinity.

    Sorry to mess with your fishing.