Working People for Fair Energy

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This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin.


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Working People for Fair Energy (WPFE) is a 501(c)(4) group that describes itself as "a non-profit organization devoted to fighting for energy laws that are fair and affordable to working people and low-income families." It was started by Dr. Charles Steele Jr., former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization founded in 1957 by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.[1] While appearing to be a group dedicated to environmental justice and working families, a Facing South Investigation found that WPFE has close ties to industry interests with a financial stake in fighting impending EPA coal ash regulation.[2]

On its website, WPFE says it's part of the Partnership for Affordable Clean Energy (PACE), another 501(c)(4) that's based in Montgomery, Ala. PACE was incorporated in February 2009 by William D. Lineberry, an attorney with the Birmingham, Ala. office of Balch & Bingham -- a firm that lobbies on behalf of the Southern Company and its Alabama Power subsidiary. Lineberry also serves on the tax committees of the Business Council of Alabama as well as Manufacture Alabama, both of which are partners in PACE. PACE's other members include the Chamber of Commerce divisions in Alabama and Tennessee, and the IBEW System Council U-19, which represents 3,000 Alabama Power employees.[2]

Testifying against coal ash regulation

On Sep. 14, 2010, Steele testified against coal ash regulation at a North Carolina EPA hearing on the issue, claiming that the costs would disproportionately burden the most economically vulnerable Americans. The research cited by Steele in his account of his EPA testimony came from a group called the Affordable Power Alliance (APA) led by conservative African-American Christian minister Harry R. Jackson Jr. APA in turn is affiliated with the Congress of Racial Equality, founded in the 1940s as a civil rights organization but which in more recent years has supported anti-environmental initiatives such as expanded oil drilling while accepting money from ExxonMobil and other corporations. "Coal and natural gas are the new civil rights battleground," CORE Chairman Roy Innis has said, "because without these sources, 'we' cannot enjoy this great society."[2]

Charles Steele Jr. and southern power companies

In 1994, Charles Steele was elected to the Alabama state senate, and reelected three times before resigning to become president of the SCLC in November 2004. While in the Senate, Steele chaired the Industrial Recruitment Committee. Alabama Power was one of the biggest contributors to his campaigns. When Steele left the state senate in 2004 to head SCLC, the organization was in trouble financially, and Steele built a $3 million headquarters for the organization with a capital campaign headed by Mike Garrett, president and CEO of Georgia Power, "whom Steele got to know during his days in the Alabama legislature," as Ebony magazine reported.[3]

In an interview with Facing South, Steele said he didn't see a problem with WPFE's and PACE's relationship with industries that have a financial stake in fighting coal ash regulation: "Our issues are the same," he said. Instead, Steele likens what will happen should EPA regulate coal ash as hazardous waste to a "revolution": "You better get ready," Steele told Facing South. "This is like the civil rights movement -- we're going to have to take it to the streets."[2]

Steele has also argued against a renewable electricity standard.[4]

WPFE Industry connections and coal ash regulation

In the Facing South report, Sue Sturgis notes that southern power companies are particularly vulnerable to coal ash regulation. Southern Company produced 12.4 billion pounds of coal ash in 2008 alone, according to a recent corporate report. It operates 11 power plants with coal ash surface impoundments in Georgia, six in Alabama, three in Florida, and two in Mississippi. In 2002, years before the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill, a sinkhole opened up in an impoundment at Georgia Power's Bowen Steam Plant in Bartow County, Ga., eventually covering four acres and reaching 30 feet in depth. The structure's failure released 2.25 million gallons of a water and coal-ash mix to a tributary of the Euharlee Creek that feeds the Etowah River, which in turn provides drinking water to downstream communities.[2]

The incident at Plant Bowen was listed in a 2007 EPA report documenting U.S. coal ash damage cases, 137 of which have been discovered to date. Also listed in the EPA report as a potential damage case was the Lansing Smith Generating Plant near Panama City, Fla., owned by Southern Company subsidiary Gulf Power. Data collected at that site "indicates that there were documented exceedances of primary drinking water standards for cadmium, chromium, and fluoride and secondary drinking water standards for sulfate, chloride, manganese, and iron in on-site groundwater" attributable to coal ash, according to the EPA. The full extent of environmental damages caused by Southern Company's coal ash impoundments is not known. In the absence of federal regulations, coal ash oversight is left up to state authorities, and Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, all in the Southern Company's service area, currently require no groundwater monitoring of operating coal ash ponds.[2]

Alabama Power and Georgia Power are also withholding details from the public about the structural stability of their coal ash impoundments, claiming that the data represents confidential business information. North Carolina-based Duke Energy and First Energy of Ohio had made similar claims that were denied by the EPA, but the agency is still in the process of making a final determination on the Southern Company's claims.[2]

Sturgis notes that states that do not require monitoring at coal ash ponds account for about 70 percent of the coal ash waste generated nationwide in 2008, as noted in an August 2010 report, New Study: Coal Ash Water- Contamination Much Worse Than Previously Estimated, With 39 Additional Toxic Sites Identified in 21 States by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), Earthjustice, and Sierra Club.

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