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It's a Matter of Quality

City, state monitoring emissions from Mirant plant on river.

As new air quality standards are implemented, city officials remain concerned about pollution from the Mirant power plant on Alexandria’s waterfront.

Mirant, a company that has recently filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code, has owned the coal-burning facility for several years. The company purchased the plant from Pepco and as part of that purchase, agreed to sell power back to Pepco. In a city that prides itself on its pro-environmental policies, the piles of coal and the smoke coming from the plant are ongoing issues.

“The plant is located in a very densely developed area right next to residences and offices,” said Vice Mayor Redella S. “Del” Pepper. “Particulate matter covers people’s cars and their balconies. This just isn’t the place for this plant.”

The plant receives its permits and is monitored by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. “As of this minute, the Mirant plant in Alexandria is in compliance with all state and federal standards,” said Chuck Turner, the director of VDEQ’s air permitting program. “We are responsible for regulating all plants of this type and respond to complaints or concerns.”

VDEQ has ambient air monitors that constantly check air quality throughout the region. “Because Northern Virginia is a no attainment area, the regulations are even more stringent than they would be in an attainment area,” Turner said.

No attainment, according to Turner, means that the Northern Virginia region does not meet the air quality standards that are defined by the Clean Air Act. As Mirant has gone through discussions about a new permit, Alexandria officials have expressed concerns about any proposal to use environmental trades to come into compliance. These trades have been used since the 1970s.

“What Mirant has done is to over control one plant in the system to offset another plant that may not meet all of the emission standards,” said Bill Skrabak, the city’s director of the division of environmental quality. “We just want to make sure that any trade results in cleaner air for the city.”

Steven Arabia, Mirant’s director of external affairs said, “We are very proud of our Potomac River plant. Over the past five years, our emissions have decreased by 30 percent. We believe that this trend will continue. Also, it is important to note that nitrogen oxide emissions from mobile sources in the region are going up and account for far more of the air pollution than do emissions from stationary sources, such as the plant,” he said.

THE COMPLAINTS the city has received relate to particulate matter escaping from the site and to noise. “We have worked very closely with Mirant to establish windows of time when trains can deliver coal,” Skrabak said. “There is one window during the day that they rarely use and then they are allowed to receive deliveries of coal between 7:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. We most often get complaints when these deliveries continue after 11.”

Whatever the issues, everyone agrees that the plant isn’t going anywhere. “The economics are such that this plant is a moneymaker for Mirant,” Pepper said. “First of all, they have Pepco as a customer. Also, they provide back-up power to several federal installations with national security responsibilities. They also provide power to a large mid-Atlantic power grid. This being the case, they are here to stay. We just need to make sure that we hold them to the highest standard possible.”

Arabia understands this point of view, at least with regard to air quality standards. “We are very clear about where we fit into the region’s air quality,” he said. “Whatever permit we are ultimately issued, we will comply with completely and it will benefit the air quality in the region,” he said.