With more than half of the $700 billion pledged from the federal government to the Wall Street bailout already spent, U.S. Rep. John Barrow has one question.
Where’d the money go?
In his first “Congress on the Corner” of the new term Saturday at Lovett’s Tradin’ Post, Barrow reiterated his displeasure with the way the bailout has been handled by both the White House and Congress.
“We haven’t the foggiest idea how $350 billion was spent, not the foggiest,” said Barrow (D-Savannah).
President Bush authorized the release of $350 billion to help the reeling financial sector and pledged to reserve the remainder for President-elect Obama to release once he takes office next week. Obama’s team has informed the Bush administration they would like for the remaining $350 billion to be released by the current White House, pending approval.
Part of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 is the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP, which allows the Treasury Department to buy the bad resources of financial institutions. Barrow said Congress wanted to put safeguards into the TARP, but those plans were shot down by President Bush.
Members of Congress have gone back to the drawing board, Barrow said, to put in restrictions and to make sure Treasury Department representatives sit in on the board meetings of firms that received bailout help “so they can’t
spend the next $350 billion the way they spent the first $350 billion.”
Barrow voted against the Wall Street bailout twice and was troubled by the lack of oversight and accountability in the EESA and for the last few years on Wall Street.
“There were patterns of abuse we saw that nobody did anything about,” he said.
Congress wanted taxpayer protection provisions so that the bailout can’t “be used to smack us around,” Barrow said.
“There is broad bipartisan support that any future plan needs transparency and oversight.”
Yet even with $350 billion already spent — $250 billion by the Treasury Department and an additional $100 billion at President’s Bush behest — and another $350 billion within two weeks of perhaps hitting the market, one of the triggers of the Wall Street tailspin hasn’t been remedied.
“The subprime mortgage crisis is a slow-moving train wreck,” Barrow said. “We haven’t addressed that problem. We haven’t addressed the troubled assets.”
Barrow also said he wants to see the U.S. slash its dependency on crude oil, particularly from foreign sources, and begin to explore using more environmentally-friendly and less economically volatile means. He pointed to the Soperton-based Range Fuels, which turns cellulose into ethanol and continued to state his aversion to corn-based ethanol.
“We’ve got a lot of biomass that isn’t spoken for,” he said. “We can’t depend on the kindness of strangers.”
Barrow said he is trying to help Georgia Power push through plans for two new reactors at Plant Vogtle, the nuclear power plant outside of Waynesboro.
“I support nuclear power,” he said.
But that source also comes with its own set of problems, Barrow noted. France derives 80 percent of its power needs from nuclear plants, but Barrow — a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce — said there are issues aside from what to do with nuclear waste.
“France has all its eggs in one basket. But they’re cooking their rivers, especially in summertime,” he said. “The Savannah River is an amazing resource.”
Residents of Mallard Point subdivision brought their concerns about the emissions from Georgia-Pacific’s Savannah River Mill and its sludge pond to Barrow. Residents who asked Barrow about the issue said they didn’t know the sludge pond was so close when they bought their property. The pond emits hydrogen sulfide and when it’s mixed with moisture, the precipitation has corroded nearby air conditioning units.
Carrie Thompson of Georgia-Pacific said the company is working on long-term and short-term solutions to offset and eliminate the impacts of the odor. She said the mill has shared information with neighbors, including one-on-one meetings and tours.
“Some of our neighbors have provided information that the odor is improving,” she said. “But we continue to move forward to address the long-term impact. Eliminating the odor takes a lot of resources and time. We are committed to moving forward with a solution.”
Residents complained that Georgia-Pacific originally said the sludge pond would be removed by 2009 but has since extended that timeline to 2011.
“It’s a significant investment of resources and time,” said Thompson. “The bottom line is we want any investment we make to be the best for the long-term.”
She said the mill has been looking at different options and has been sharing that information with its neighbors.
Thompson also explained that the mill checks the hydrogen sulfide emissions both on its property and on neighboring properties and results are between non-detectable levels and 3 parts per million, which is below the Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines.
Air conditioning units have metal parts that have a potential to react with gases and compounds in the air, Thompson said, and that corrosion is a result. The low levels of hydrogen sulfide emissions from the sludge pond are not harmful to humans, she said.
“We’re going to work to resolve the issues of environmental concerns,” Thompson said. “That’s not to say we won’t have challenges, but we are committed to working through those. We are committed to being a good neighbor.”
The mill, through its recycling efforts, manages to keep 1,800 tons of waste paper out of the landfill every day.
Barrow also trumpeted residential recycling efforts and said the Athens-Clarke County consolidated government developed a two-stream approach during his time on that commission.
Recycling isn’t a big profit venture, Barrow said, but there are opportunities for governments to get some of their money back.
“The main thing you are doing is you are saving space in that landfill,” he said. “It makes it last two to three times longer. It’s not just the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.”
There also were worries over President-elect Obama’s choice of attorney general, former Clinton administration deputy attorney general Eric Holder, and his stance on gun ownership.
“Don’t worry about me,” Barrow, who received a National Rifle Association endorsement last fall, said. “I’m going to continue to support our personal right to own a gun. I’m optimistic that nothing is going to come down the pike.”