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AES Economics

Summer, 1991

   Applied Energy Services, AES, the company which has plans to build a coal-fired electric generating plant on the Penobscot River in Bucksport, has funded a study which shows that the plant will add $1 billion to the area economy, directly and indirectly, over the lifetime of the plant.

   That’s quite a statistic, and even I, an opponent of the plant, was impressed. It was not surprising to me, then, when support for the plant’s construction started building among the workers in the area, especially those out of work or threatened with a lay-off in this shaky economic time.

   Yes, $300 million spent on construction in the area over a three-year period would be a significant shot in the arm. And, using the traditional method of figuring that each dollar in wages is circulated seven times within a community, the 40 to 60 full-time jobs the plant would create would add a sizable sum.

   But, as Paul Harvey is wont to say, what about ‘‘the rest of the story?’’

What about the losses the plant will create?

   As a farmer, I am concerned about the potential 10 percent crop loss, estimated in one study cited last summer, which would result from the government-approved pollution this facility would be allowed to spew. If that pollution would be lethal to 10 percent of my plants, the rest of them must be affected as well. So I can expect a direct economic loss from the AES plant, once it is operational. It will do me little good to have more money circulating in the community, if I have less to sell because of AES.

   But my fields will not be the only ones affected. This spring more and more back yards are being plowed up and turned over. The resurgence of the home garden is a fall-back position when times are tough. A thousand dollars worth (by grocery-store prices) of home-grown and preserved food is not only cost-effective, it is healthy and untaxed. The pollution will fall on those gardens as well. Be prepared to plow up a bigger area, and work harder, if this facility goes in.

   I don’t think industry is doing all this nasty stuff deliberately. I don’t think it really wants to kill the earth it lives on. I don’t think it realizes it can. I mean, what does dirt and food and bugs and manure have to do with real life – like contracts and lawyers and office buildings and power loads and politics and conflicts of interest. I just think the people who make all the decisions that result in all this damage are too far removed from the idea of where their food comes from to understand that this is serious stuff we’re talking about here.

   All the money in the world won’t buy healthy food if there’s no place on earth where it will grow.

   And what about the extra medical bills for the asthma victims? What about the cost of chronic ill health from breathing bad air? What about the stress from noise pollution? Were those increased medical bills included in the amount of money that the plant would ‘‘add’’ to the economy? Were they subtracted? Were they counted at all? If not, why not?

   I’m not surprised by the growing support for the AES facility based on its monetary impact because I was raised in a family where the weekly paycheck was the means of survival. My parents grew up during the Depression. Security for them was having a job with a good company. My father worked for 41 years in a steel mill in Youngstown, Ohio. It was hot, and noisy and sooty, and he worked swing shift for most of those years. About twice a year a shard of steel found its way into one of his eyes and he wore a patch for a week or so. He lost most of his hearing, both eyes have been operated on in recent years, and his health is poor. But he had a secure job.

   Or he thought he did. He, like so many of his generation, put his trust in a company which paraded its economic impact when times were good, and had no compunction about ‘‘reducing work force’’ when they weren’t. He held his breath during each shake-up, and squeaked by. Four months after my father retired, the secure company that he worked for went out of business, and tried to take his pension with it. It took several court interventions to keep those monthly checks coming. He visibly blanched in the throes of this when he realized that if he had planned to retire six months later, there would have been no pension at all.

   I am a bit concerned, too, about the apparent trust the supporters of this plant have for government regulation. Their position is that if the facility meets all the government rules it should go in. Inherent in that position is the belief that the government is all-knowing and would not allow anything to harm us. That blind faith is what the opposition finds so frightening. Those of us who have seen laws and regulations in the making know that rules are the result of compromise, not all-knowing wisdom and caring. Will Rep. Joe approve this law if it will shut down a factory in his hometown? What will Rep. Joe approve? Can the factory stay open if the limits are cut in half? Let’s try that and hope nothing bad happens.

   Even with the best of intentions, we have groups of people, many of them quite intelligent and learned, making long-range plans on short-range information. They are just people, and the lesson of history is that no one knows the consequences of so many of these things. People in the government approved DDT, and people in the government banned it 20 or 30 years later when it turned out to be a time bomb. People in the government approved Agent Orange and 2,4,5-T, even allowing the latter to be sprayed along public roadsides and people’s lawns. Then the birth defects started happening, and it was banned by the same government which approved it.

   For those of us with a learned distrust of bottom-line corporations and a view that government regulation is at best a stab in the dark, it will take more than $1 billion to change our opinion about this facility.The best things in life are free, but won’t stay free if we fail to keep our vigilance. Clean air is free, but keeping it clean, or cleaning it up afterward, is so expensive that President Bush doesn’t want to even contemplate it.

   Clean water with healthy fish is not to be taken for granted. When I grew up, the industrial giants could openly espouse that the highest and best use of rivers were as industrial sewers. And they acted accordingly. I remember as a kid a long and bitter labor dispute and a strike which closed the steel mills for months. I can still picture the banner headline eight or so months after the strike began when the first live fish was spotted in the Mahoning River. Front page news.

   And noise. The noise that deafened my father was proudly industrial. That mill was operating like that with governmental approval. But my father can’t hear the birds singing anymore, and carries on conversations with great difficulty. Was it worth it? He and his generation thought so. He did provide for his family. But it cost him – and us – a great deal.

   The other frustrating thing for me is that I will get none of the benefits from this plant, yet I will suffer consequences and there is nothing I can do about it. I can tell them I don’t want their electricity. My electric company already has said it doesn’t want it either. No problem, says AES. The electricity will be sold out of state. So my energy conservation efforts, and those of the entire state combined, are irrelevant to AES. We are not their customers.

   At the very end of one of the many meetings last summer in Bucksport, the president of AES was debating methods to reduce the pollution spewing from the proposed chimney. He was explaining why certain technologies, although available, would cost too much to implement.

   ‘‘After all,’’ he said, ‘‘there have to be trade-offs.’’

   I was enraged by that statement. Yes, he was quite willing to trade off my health and well-being for the great deal of money he will be making on this project.

   That’s why $1 billion is impressive, but not impressive enough. Economics is more than money. And considering the negative ramifications – the black lung of coal miners from West Virginia, where this coal is starting out; the pollution added knowingly to our water and air; the adverse effect on the health of the most fragile in our population, the young and the old; the electricity being shipped out of state so people in Boston can run their air conditioners – the AES economic profile is not enough.

   By accepting this plant, we will all be jeopardizing our security, our real, bare-bones, backyard garden variety security, for three years of prosperity for some, and 20 or 30 years of big financial payoffs for fewer still.

   Will you see any of that money? I won’t.

   Even if you do manage to land some of it, do you need the money that badly?

   I don’t.
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