Monday, March 21, 2011

22 MAR 11 (final): Operation Smoky Dawn

The hazy cloud was visible Friday afternoon to people standing west of Schatulga Road. Sometimes you can tell where the dividing line is for a military installation, without seeing a fence....

BLOG EXCLUSIVE: The smoke from a "controlled burn" at Fort Benning spread so far Monday morning that some staff members at Muscogee Technology Park were told NOT to show up for work. Others reportedly were bused to outposts to do their work, even if it was more than an hour away. Really now -- at my home on the other side of town, you couldn't smell a thing.

Knowledgeable sources told your blog the NCR plant on Corporate Ridge Parkway had only a skeleton crew on the main floor, and very few workers in a call center on the second floor. The smell of smoke in the building apparently was considered a health and safety concern. There's a reason why you don't find barbecue restaurants close to the industrial parks.

We obtained this photo looking east toward Schatulga Road from Corporate Ridge Parkway. On other mornings, the smoky scene might be blamed on low-lying fog. But Monday morning, the smell of smoke left no doubt of the source - and brought the east edge of Columbus close to ground-level smog on the order of Beijing.

NCR at first hoped to resume full operations at midday Monday. But I'm told executives later decided to keep the building closed through Tuesday evening - only to change course hours later and reopen the complex. It may have come down to a choice between ATM's dispensing "cold hard" cash and "money to burn."

(Some NCR employees reportedly were moved to a satellite facility in Peachtree City. So the company has backup plans when emergencies happen - and are trying to avoid going back to Ohio at all costs.)

Not everyone was concerned about smoke inhalation from the prescribed burn. This photo shows a man jogging down Schatulga Road -- as if he was using the smoke for inspiration about the sausage biscuits he'd have later for breakfast.

But details of the burn get only, uh, hazier from there. I called Fort Benning Monday afternoon for an update on the fire -- only to be told by spokesperson Elsie Jackson it's NOT Benning's fault. "We get blamed for a lot of things," Jackson told me. I guess I should have asked about Libya, while I was on the phone.

Elsie Jackson's proof to the contrary was an e-mail she received Friday from Columbus city government, which she forwarded to us:

The City of Columbus conducted a 850 acre prescribed burn today on their property by the landfill and near the industrial park off of Chattsworth Road. It is predicted to be a high potential for fog tonight with a wind change to the northwest, which may cause the smoke to settle in low lying areas of Columbus.

If there are any smoke related issues tonight or tomorrow in Columbus, Sand Hill or Main Post it is not related to any prescribed burning activities on Fort Benning.

So the smoke lingered in that general area all the way to Monday morning -- and the people who claim radiation from Japan already has floated all the way to California need to calm down.

Next stop: Columbus city government - and a woman at the Public Services Department was stumped by my questions about a fire. She especially was puzzled when I mentioned Chattsworth Road. "We don't have a landfill there," she told me. Unless Columbus residents are throwing away so much stuff that the pile is stretching north....

Public Services Director Gary Stickles was called to the phone, and he insisted Fort Benning was to blame for the smoke along Schatulga Road. When I mentioned the e-mail, Stickles sounded annoyed as he told me bluntly: "The city is not doing no controlled burn that I know about." You know this is serious when city officials start using double negatives.

Gary Stickles threw another surprising curve into the search for truth - saying the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce also owns property near the landfill, so it might be doing the burning. The Chamber of Commerce?! Wouldn't it be more likely to burn copies of the federal health care reform act?

A message left with the Chamber of Commerce about the burning brought no response Monday night. But really now - I don't think the staff would start a fire at the edge of Columbus to burn those old white sheets.

So what do we conclude from this? Perhaps the city's prescribed burn is over, and the Public Services Director didn't know about the lingering side effects on a big local employer. Or perhaps there's another explanation - such as an escaped Muscogee County Prison inmate who got out with only a book of matches.

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E-MAIL UPDATE: This message reached the InBox late Monday night, but the item it mentions could disappear if we don't post it quickly....

girlfriend for sale (wetumpka)....

found this on Craigslist - montgomery - general for sale

Hmmmm - if someone invites the lover to make a transaction at a Columbus motel, I'd turn them down immediately.

I'll save one other e-mail for another day, because of our exclusive story. Let's quickly check other Monday headlines....

+ The Ledger-Enquirer unveiled a new format, with a front-page look and approach which reminds me a lot of the current Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Columbus newspaper is returning to four full sections on Mondays instead of two -- which shows either the economy is recovering, or the last stockpiles of newsprint are being used up now.

+ WTVM attended an NAACP protest of plans to close Cannon Street Elementary School in Troup County. Parents say they're upset because their children would be bused 20 miles to another school. Talk about changing times! A civil rights group actually opposes busing....

+ Alabama advanced in the National Invitation Tournament by nailing New Mexico 74-67. The announced attendance in Tuscaloosa was 6,821. If the game had been played outdoors after the opening day of spring football practice, that number would have doubled.

+ Instant Message to the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department: Should I blame you for that other unpleasant odor in the air Monday? That pesticide treatment along the Chattahoochee Promenade is NOT easy on a jogger's lungs.

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