Concerned residents near Plant Scherer meet with environmental lawyers

hduncan@macon.comNovember 1, 2012 

JULIETTE -- Some of those who came to the Thursday night meeting about Plant Scherer clutched photos of sick loved ones. Some carried their medical records. One person brought cloths covered with black filth wiped from her windows and pool. They were among about 50 people who came to Rum Creek Banquet Hall in Juliette to find out how they could sue Georgia Power, majority owner and operator of the Monroe County coal-fired power plant.

It was the first of two meetings being held by a team of Macon and New York lawyers. Some said they were ready to file lawsuits over alleged harm to their health and property from the ash generated when the plant burns coal to make electricity -- and the 750-acre pond where most of the ash ends up.

Martha Cass, who has lived near the plant since 1975, brought in the cloths showing the residue on her window sills and screens. She said she has multiple sclerosis and gastrointestinal problems she believes are related to breathing and ingesting the coal ash.

She also had pictures of two of her young grandchildren, both of whom live on her street and have cancer.

Holding up Cass’s cloths, Macon attorney Brian Adams told those in the room, “If it’s getting on your property this way, it’s getting in your lungs this way.”

The Gautreaux & Adams law firm of Macon is teaming with Napoli Bern Ripka Shkolnik & Associates LLP of New York, a major firm nationally in environmental and personal injury cases. They held the meeting to provide information and answer questions from community members who might want to sue. A second meeting will be held Friday at 12:30 at the same location.

The attorneys’ presentation indicated Plant Scherer has been under investigation by the federal Environmental Protection Agency since August.

The attorneys said they don’t want to shut down the plant, but they emphasized Georgia Power’s moral and legal obligations.

At first, the crowd seemed a little cool. Then Adams asked for a show of hands: “How many people agree you’re supposed to love and respect your neighbor?” Almost every hand shot up high.

“We’re here today because we believe that rule applies to everybody, individuals AND corporations,” Adams said.

He told those attending that a scientific expert told him last week that every one of the two dozen ash ponds he has studied leached contamination into the groundwater.

Dozens of Juliette residents have found unsafe levels of uranium in their well water or airborne radon in their homes. Some of them have been diagnosed with uranium poisoning. Uranium occurs naturally in the underground rocks of the Piedmont region, but coal ash also concentrates heavy metals and uranium contained in the source coal.

Most of those tests were conducted through University of Georgia labs, and Adams said anyone who files a lawsuit through his legal team will have their water retested by an independent party for free.

“We can’t rely on the UGA tests,” he said.

Some residents who said they plan to sue haven’t tested their water because they don’t trust UGA, which has strong ties to Georgia Power.

Joseph Jackson and Rickey Fluellen, both of Macon, said they might sue over health problems they attribute to years of work at Plant Scherer. For example, Jackson, who worked at Scherer for 16 years in coal handling and on the cooling towers, suffered a collapsed lung in April.

Monroe County resident J.R. Greenway said he’s concerned that any lawsuits will be settled without Georgia Power being required to correct the problem by draining and lining the ash pond.

Adams and Marc Bern, who will be one of the primary attorneys leading the cases, said they will only settle if the client desires it. Adams added that other environmental settlements have included conditions that led to fixing the problem.

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