Utility Rate Increase Fights Are Back!

concept of expensive energy billNew Orleans    Once upon a time back in the last century, just as there are now campaigns for things like living wages and ending predatory lending, there were fights to hold giant utility companies accountable all over the country more than forty years ago. Then there was something called inflation, which young people in the 21st century may have forgotten, though thanks to the Federal Reserve’s coming decision on interest rates, we are about to learn anew, where prices and costs rise everywhere, not just on drugs, housing, and higher education. During those times, investor owned utilities (yes, IOU’s) were also known as public utilities because they were allowed monopolies and were therefore regulated by public service or public utility companies from state to state.

Utilities, in even older days, were about as unpopular as, well, banks, and whole political careers were made fighting against their rate and construction plans in favor of the little folks who were sometime called consumers. Many of these commissioners were elected in the western and southern United States and whole careers were made of fighting against utilities and the like. Huey Long, the Louisiana populist was a good example of this breed.

In the early 1970’s, utility rate increase fights were being waged all over the country and not just in places like California and Seattle. ACORN was in the thick of the battles in Arkansas, South Dakota and many other states. The principal objective was winning something we – and others – called “lifeline” rates. Lifeline rates would freeze the price for lower income and elderly users at an affordable level for the first 400 kilowatt hours of usage thereby protecting them against outrageous rate increases. We tried to win at the PSC in Arkansas and would manage to decrease the outrageous requests of what was then called Arkansas Power and Light (AP&L), one of the units of Middle South Utilities, now all known as Entergy. We even decisively won an election in Little Rock establishing lifeline rates only to have the victory overturned in court with Web Hubbell and Hillary Clinton sitting at the utility’s table, but that’s both another story and at the heart of this story, because it has to do with the financing.

To pay for lifeline rates at the bottom for the small users, it was necessary to modify the huge giveaways to the big users receiving bulk discounts for heavy usage. Alcoa and Reynolds Aluminum, huge operations at the time in Arkansas, used 10% of all of the electricity produced by AP&L to run their operations. Making the larger users pay a fairer share protected the smaller users who were essentially subsidizing the big guys. This whole inequity thing we’re fighting now, is not exactly brand spanking news.

Fast forward and there is Ernie Dumas who was on the editorial board of the Arkansas Gazette back then writing a column now in the Arkansas Times that was essentially déjà vu all over again. Entergy, taking advantage of the Republican majority in both houses of the legislature, managed to pass something that overturned the way utilities are regulated in the state and now are whining that they want the PSC to hand over more than a 10% increase. Defying all logic – and history – they are also arguing that allowing them to give even bigger discounts to electricity guzzling industries will bring in jobs. The argument rests on hopes that permanent amnesia has set in and no one will realize that this is their same strategy dressed in a new, more expensive coat, and it has never created jobs but always strapped consumers with high bills. He wonders if “the ratepayers’ voice will be there,” and that’s a call that must be answered. Yet again, and again, and again.

This is the proverbial canary in the mine-shaft. Utility companies are shrewd and they live like vultures in the hallways of state legislatures. Arkansas won’t be the only state where they have seduced them silently to prey on consumers. Let’s hope the battle cry can be heard and answered everywhere once again.


John Beam, Veteran of ACORN’s Heroic Era


Entergy White Bluff Plant

New Orleans     More than 15 years ago during the HOTROC organizing campaign for hotel workers in New Orleans, I worked with an organizer named David Keiffer. Dave had been around a number of organizations before partnering with me and flying an AFL-CIO banner at the time with stints going back to the AM/FM canvass program in Tampa when we built the WMNF radio station there, then years with ACTWU organizing textile workers in the South, and a breakthrough campaign organizing asbestos workers with the Laborers in New York City. Dave had a mythical turn of phrase that cushioned his constant tinkering with his spreadsheets, and would refer to organizers and organizing drives as belonging to the historic, heroic era of this or that.

The phrase comes to mind as I think about the passing of John Beam, another veteran of ACORN’s first dozen years of organizing in Arkansas and beyond, clearly in Dave’s sense and every sense I can image, a key organizer in the heroic, founding days of the organization in the United States. John’s passing follows other veterans of that era now in recent years including Dewey Armstrong earlier in this year and Jon Kest almost two years ago now. These were great organizers in their day and we won’t see their like again or benefit from the kinds of contributions they made very soon in the future.

For many years John and I would joke about the coincidence that we had a multi-year streak of always sharing my birthday in August together. He was from Dallas and had driven up to be interviewed on a Saturday in the early 1970’s on my birthday. He hadn’t been long out of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois outside of Chicago. Later he’d actually took that trip we children of the West always talk about and in fact traveled one way and another deep into Latin America. He was always ready to go. Another one of my birthdays in 1974, we spent driving to the Missouri Bootheel, that small piece of delta land that juts along the Mississippi River into Arkansas and is more south than anything else. We had tried our first baby steps at expanding ACORN by answering the call from a group there called MDEM, the Missouri Delta Ecumenical Ministry and recruited an organizer from Chicago who John trained on a quick drive in Mabelvale in Pulaski County outside of Little Rock. He had done all right, but clearly it wasn’t working out in the Bootheel for any of us, so we had drawn the short straw of going up, closing down this brief trail balloon called the American Community Organizations for Reform Now, and sending him on his way as well. That was just the way John and I celebrated the passing of another year!

John spent years working for ACORN. He opened up one of our earliest expansion offices in the 20/80 push in Memphis, Tennessee. Heck, maybe that was on my birthday, too, but I may be making that up! He worked later as one of the early ACORN Regional Directors, based in New Orleans after 1978. He was part of the mix and mayhem of the New Orleans jobs action that led to arrests and mess as we pushed Mayor Dutch Morial for summer job for youth.

But, if I tried to remember perhaps John’s most epic piece of organizing for ACORN during those heroic days, it was in the delta of the Arkansas River organizing the Protect Our Land Association (POLA) and SHAP, ACORN, standing for Save Health and Property. Arkansas Power & Light, then part of Mid-South Utilities, and now Entergy, submitted a proposal to the Public Service Commission to build what they called “the world’s largest coal-fired power plant” at White Bluff on west side of the Arkansas River midway between Pine Bluff and Little Rock. We were already fighting AP&L and other utilities on inflation-driven rate hikes for our members, right and left, and initially jumped into this fight because we were convinced that it would raise our members’ electric rates yet again. We operated the campaign on every level, researching the stock ownership and opening a front of the campaign at Harvard and with other Ivies that were big holders. Steve Kest, our research director, was reading reports of damage to cows under the lines in Europe and studies about sulfur emission damage to crops in Sweden. We were outsmarting and out hustling the company at every turn. The company for its part was intent on constructing a “slurry” line eventually and until then running 100-car trains that would move coal from the Powder River basin and the giant Fort Union coal deposit in eastern Wyoming. North Dakota, and Montana, where we also engaged allied groups of farmers and ranchers in the fight.

ACORN was never an advocacy group though, it was always a membership-based, membership-driven organization, so no matter how many bells and whistles we might develop for the campaign, the organizing would rise or fall on whether or not we could get farmers and rural residents downwind of the proposed White Bluff plant to organize with ACORN and lead the fight. That was just the kind of job and challenge for John Beam, and he delivered big time, driving miles and walking the long distances up country roads to farmhouse doors and talking to families about what White Bluff would bring down on them, how it would affect their crops, and the impact on the health of their livestock and families. I will never forget the shock on the face of the local AP&L office director in their small office in Stuttgart in the middle of the eastern Arkansas rice growing region when John and I along with others followed about 25 farmers into his office demanding more information on the plans and no movement until we were satisfied.

They wanted to fly some of the farmers to see the Paradise plant in Kentucky, and not only did we blast them on the plant’s environmental record, but packed the small planes with our farmers and just tore them up. The campaign brought us our first front-page story in the Arkansas Gazette. We won huge reductions in size and increased protections from the plant, and were able to counter AP&L at every turn.

John left ACORN in 1982 some years later. He married Polly Chase, another former organizer, and later a nurse, who was from Rhode Island. They ended up in New York City. Our paths didn’t cross as much over the last few decades. I ran into him a couple of times in ACORN’s Brooklyn office. He wrote some proposals for New York ACORN. He even ended up directing a joint project based at Fordham University on education for some years with us.

Nonetheless in my mind, jumping out of our old cars onto the shoulder of eastern Arkansas highways to talk to a couple of more farmers or walking into the cafes where they were having coffee early in the morning and talking about White Bluff and finally beating that company like a drum thanks to John’s great work in the fields and farmhouses, will always feel like his finest hour with ACORN.

And, he will be missed.


Welcome to New Orleans where Entergy Serves Power Failure Regularly and at the Super Bowl

New Orleans   There for all of the world to see and experience is New Orleans in all of its glory and damned if the lights don’t go off and show our ass instead of our smiling faces!

This is what a cover-up reads like, thanks to the Association Press “explanation,” if that’s what you call the statement from Entergy, the giant middle-south utility, and the only Fortune 500 company headquartered in the city, and the Superdome management company:

“A joint statement from Entergy New Orleans, which provides power to the stadium, and Superdome operator SMG shed some light on the chain of events, although they weren’t sure about the source of the problem. It apparently started at the spot where Entergy feeds power into the stadium’s lines.  “A piece of equipment that is designed to monitor electrical load sensed an abnormality in the system,” the statement said. “Once the issue was detected, the sensing equipment operated as designed and opened a breaker, causing power to be partially cut to the Superdome in order to isolate the issue. … Entergy and SMG will continue to investigate the root cause of the abnormality.”  The FBI quickly ruled out terrorism, and the New Orleans Fire Department dismissed reports that a fire might have been the cause.” [emphasis added]

We’ll wait for the review, but the only Super Bowl bet that I would have been happy to handle is the fact that 100% of New Orleanians absolutely know the fault undoubtedly rests squarely with Entergy and its usual half-stepping.

Few have forgiven the Entergy delays after Katrina and the fact that power flows sometimes miles across the city and can still shut us down in a hard rain.  After Issac this last fall, the delays lasted weeks for many even though the storm missed New Orleans.  Entergy blames the trees but takes no steps to invest in putting lines underground or protecting lines from water, when they are underground.  Meanwhile we pay heavy prices for energy here despite being firmly located in the oil and gas belt of the Gulf, but even as rates go up, service is sketchy and infrastructure investment is marginal.

Count on the fact that the executives of Entergy are feted regularly, but Super Bowl visitors and viewers once again got a good look, albeit in the dark, from the Superdome once again, just as they did in 2005 at Katrina, of the New Orleans reality when the party mask is removed.


Kentucky’s Big Sandy Coal Fired Power Plant Brings Memories of Arkansas White Bluff Fight

New Orleans    A picture in the Times of “Big Sandy,” the 1100 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Eastern Kentucky being shutdown finally over the next three years by the giant utility company, American Electric Power, brought back memories of a great fight 40 years ago in and around Pine Bluff, Arkansas where what is now Entergy and then was the Arkansas Power & Light (APL) Company was trying to build a similar mega-plant at White Bluff on the Arkansas River.  This was ACORN’s first campaign that broke nationally in 1972 and propelled the organization from an interesting community organizing experiment in a state most people had to look on the map to locate to something that folks could see had potential and range on a larger scale.

In dealing with the issue of the proposed plant construction we were worried about the increase cost on the rate base for our lower income, working consumers who were fighting off various utility increases almost as a daily matter in the early 1970’s, but to go toe-to-toe with APL we had to move strategically and tactically on a number of different fronts and that meant organizing farmers on both sides of the river that were downwind of the plant on one side and their biggest investors at super elite Ivy League colleges like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton on the other hand.   This whole fight would take a lot longer to tell than time or space allows today, so back to “Big Sandy.”

The company public relations flacks didn’t care if we moved their investors particularly though a mention on the front page of Arkansas Gazette and picked up by the New York Times didn’t make them very happy.  This was going to be decided by the elected members of the Arkansas Public Services Commission, so they felt if they could convince the farmers to be happy about all of this, they were good to go.  They hatched up a brilliant idea.  They would invited some of the leaders of the ACORN Protect Our Land Association to fly on a small charter plane over to Kentucky for the day and look at a similar (though smaller) coal fired plant there so they would know how great it would all be.  The company’s argument in those days before climate change and globe warming were much understood was that the sulfur emissions from the plant would be “free fertilizer” for the farmers soy beans, rice, and cotton, and therefore a bargain too good to beat.

Early in the morning a handful of APL executives, farmers, and me crawled into a plane for the quick trip to Kentucky.  We didn’t know exactly where we were going until the last minute, but we knew we would be looking at a coal-fired plant.  In those unimaginable days before the internet, it took some real skill to do a lot of the campaign based research that evened the odds on some of these campaigns.  Our research director was a young (hell we were all young!) Harvard student taking a year off from school, Steve Kest, who managed to piece together some information on the various plants in Kentucky and, very importantly, some records from that state and the feds on citations that Big Sandy had earned for pollution.  Couple that with the fact that the coal was mined locally straight out of some of the horror of Muhlenberg County, well known in song and legend for labor fights and environmental devastation, and the farmers and I had all the ammunition we needed to turn APL’s junket into a disaster for their proposals and catch them flatfooted.  Reporters were on the plane and in addition to our press releases we were able to feed them facts on top of facts about the problems that came with Big Sandy.  Big Sandy was something for sure, but it was scary in size and scale which also increased our credibility.

At the end of the day we beat the plant back without beating the plant.  White Bluff originally proposed as the largest coal-fired plant in the world requiring transport of coal in 100-car trains from the Powder River Basin deposits in Wyoming (we beat back a slurry line!), ended up about half that size.  We didn’t win scrubbers which experts around the world argued were needed to offset the pollution, but we did win some modifications that did a good piece of the work.

It is amazing that 40 years later Big Sandy was still belching its way around Kentucky.  The Times reported that the retrofit was too dear for AEP to finance despite its captive minds and pro-coal backers in Kentucky.  The Sierra Club reports that the number of coal-fired plants has dropped over the last dozen years from 522 to 395 or so.

ACORN may have been ahead of its time 40 years ago in Arkansas, but there’s still a lot left to do.  The fact that the internet has made the information more available would have made Steve’s job easier back then, but it’s still all about organizations with people and power in fighting and winning on this front and so many others.