Hattiesburg challenger of power plant resists labels

Thomas A. Blanton is a theologian. And a student of Jean Lafitte.

An oilman. And an environmentalist.

A rock 'n' roll impresario twice over. And a protest singer with an unreleased album.

A fan of Mark Twain. And Uncle Remus.

A community organizer who can direct the distribution of thousands of campaign cards a day. And an unsuccessful candidate for the Public Service Commission.

A strict constitutional constructionist. And a Democrat.

A cancer survivor. And a professional hell-raiser.

He resists labeling. You could say he is eclectic. Even his friends allow he's a bit eccentric.

With white hair flowing down his back, an eye lost to cancer and a beard gone wild, he's the image of a pirate. But he says the only thing he's interested in raiding is the corporate boardrooms of those interested in pocketing a fortune at the expense of the little guy, or the planet.

He's well known in south Mississippi as the man who took on Mississippi Power and the state's Republican political machine over the baseload act and subsequent rate increases for electricity meant to pay for the Kemper County power plant.

"I was finishing school in '77 — Harvard Divinity School — and got a degree, master's of divinity. It's a three-year professional degree," he said. "I knew I wasn't supposed to be a minister, but I felt called. And I just had this really powerful feeling I needed to move back to Mississippi."

During summers at Harvard, he worked for Massachusetts on environmental issues such as energy conservation, garbage burners and curbside recycling.

"We let computers route the garbage trucks," he said. "We saved 18 percent in one year. The same thing for school buses."

By the time he returned home, it was evident his calling was environmental activism.

"Three weeks later, they announced Richton (salt domes) was going to be a nuclear dump," he said. "Spontaneously, all these different people began having meetings. Several hundred here in Hattiesburg and on the Coast a thousand. Everybody rose up."

Among those rising up was Stan Flint, who runs The Consulting Group in Jackson, which lobbies on a variety of issues before the Legislature.

"(Blanton) has carried that fire-in-the-belly commitment to the little guy, commitment to true democracy, commitment to participation in true democracy," Flint said. "He's always been on the side of what's right. He sometimes does it a little more eccentrically than the others might do it, but it's because of people like Tommy ... who delayed their lives for 12 years to do something about a proposal that became universally hated in the state. And for good reason, because it was a really bad idea."

Flint said Blanton's background in the oil business, which he got into in the late 1970s, was priceless to the cause of stopping a plan to store radioactive waste in the state's underground salt domes.

"Whether he was talking to scientists about radionuclides leaking from salt stock or addressing a botanical society," he said, "he has a core of unassailable scientific knowledge and dogged persistence.

"And he was doing it all out of his back pocket."

Tenacity seems to come naturally. In the early '70s as an undergraduate, he brought big-name rock acts to the University of Mississippi, including Steven Stills and Manassas, an act so big the Ole Miss brass was afraid the electrical system couldn't bear the load. So, Blanton and his cohorts on the student concert committee rented two generators. He said the show made $50,000.

He took on the powers that be again and again. He fought to keep a bargeful of garbage from the East Coast off 16th Section school land in Stone County. He helped reject a plan to put 2,000 pig farms in the state, and he lost a battle against "desnagging" or clearing Okatoma Creek.

All the while, he was building his oil holdings. He said one of his early partners, Charlie Meeks, called him "one of the great ones" for his ability to find oil and gas. He said he was doing horizontal drilling in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, a sedimentary rock formation containing oil that stretches from Mississippi across Louisiana, in 1992.

"I've always been out front," he said. "I like it there, where the air is clean and the big vista is."

But "a lot of times you get out there and you lose."

He said they lost $65 million in one exploration.

"We try to keep the wells clean," he said, explaining oil production and environmentalism needn't be mutually exclusive. "You do the best you can and you clean up the rest."

Oil has given him the wherewithal to battle the power company all the way to the state Supreme Court, where earlier this month the court ruled the Public Service Commission shouldn't have granted the rate increase and ordered millions of dollars returned to ratepayers. Mississippi Power has asked the court to reconsider.

Mississippi Power would not comment for this story, although its chief executive officer, Ed Holland, wrote in a recent editorial forum in The Sun-Herald: "Mississippi Power has worked hard to make sure our customers pay the minimum increase for the costs of the Kemper facility."

Blanton doesn't think the energy company has much of a case.

"I don't have this great sense of victory, of vindication," he said. "It's been a long row to hoe and it's not over yet."  READ MORE HERE

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