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What's the Price of Breathing?

Panel looks at Mirant Plant; highlights dangers of burning coal.

Alexandria Councilman Andrew H. Macdonald, who holds a Ph.D. in Geology, informed a meeting of the North Old Town Independent Citizens, "Every chemical you can imagine forms in coal."

That statement kicked off a panel discussion Thursday night at the Old Colony Conference Center entitled, "Air Quality and the Mirant Power Plant." Macdonald was joined on the panel by Alexandria Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper and Dr. Michael Trahos, a family practitioner who has two pulmonary specialists in his practice.

"Geologists are fascinated by coal because it contains cadmium, mercury, aluminum, and sulfur among a host of other substances," Macdonald said. "When we think of coal fired plants we need to think about the whole coal mining process.

"Forty train-car loads of coal come here [to Mirant in North Old Town] every day. And when they crush and grind coal it is to get rid of some of the sulfur. Sulfur dioxide is absorbed very quickly into the lungs and then into the blood. Things coming out of a plant [such as Mirant] include carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide as well as sulfur dioxide."

Macdonald's warnings were buttressed by Trahos who displayed a diagram of healthy and damaged lungs. "If the tissues in the lungs swell enough you get asthma. The ultimate effect is that you can't transfer oxygen to the blood. … Ultimately, no manner of assistance, such as oxygen tanks, is enough and you die."

Following this, Pepper posed the rhetorical question, "So what are we doing about it?" She admitted, "I've been hearing from this neighborhood task force for at least 10 years about the possible dangers coming from the Mirant Plant. But, everything I've tried has gone for naught. It's been extremely frustrating."

She then said, "But, there's been a change in the wind, if you'll pardon the pun. There's this plant sitting there that is one of the big polluters. This is now a national, regional, and state issue as well as a city issue."

ONE OF THE THINGS that helped to change the direction of that wind was a detailed study of the air quality in Alexandria undertaken by two members of NOTICe, Elizabeth Chimento and Poul Hertel. Entitled "Mirant Power Plant Emissions and Health Effects Report," it was completed Aug. 20 and presented to Alexandria City Council.

In the introduction, it states, "We initiated this study in Spring 2001 to scientifically determine the source of our neighborhood residue." They concluded, after input from a wide array of technical/scientific sources the "scientific data validates our original concerns regarding residue emanating from the power plant [Mirant].

"The empirical research, collected over a two and half year period, consistently demonstrates the health dangers and risks associated with coal burning power plants. Furthermore, these health effects not only impact North Old Town, but also the entire City ...."

Pepper noted that one of the main proponents advancing better air quality and retraining the use of coal powered plants has been U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D-8), former mayor of Alexandria.

On Aug. 29, nine days after the release of the Chimento/Hertel report, Moran issued a press release stating, "The Potomac River Power Plant in Alexandria is one of the coal-fired power plants that will be allowed by President Bush to pollute even more under new rules he issued this week."

Those rules allow 17,000 power plants and facilities, "including 540 aging coal-fired power plants, to upgrade their facilities without having to install anti-pollution measures," according to Moran. He further noted, "Alexandria's Potomac River plant, owned by Pepco and leased to Mirant, was grandfathered into new clean air rules that were passed in 1977 as part of amendments to the 1970 Clean Air Act."

Moran emphasized that, "The Potomac River and other area power plants were responsible for, among other things, at least 20,000 asthma attacks; 4,000 emergency room visits, and 300 hospitalizations."

Severe health implications were also pointed out in the Chimento/Hertel study. The lead paragraph under "Health Effects" in their report states, "... fine particles (emitted from the smoke stacks of coal fired plants) are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths caused by increases in lung and heart disease.

"Fine particulate air pollution triggers many kinds of respiratory illnesses, including asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, and emphysema ... The connection between asthma and fine particulates is noteworthy since asthma is the most common cause of medical emergencies in children."

IN ANSWER to some of this problem, Moran has co-sponsored the Clean Smokestacks Act. This bill would close the grandfathering exemption that allows the Alexandria Mirant plant to escape upgrading its pollution control equipment.

According to a 1999 study, "The average utility bill would increase by 1.3 percent monthly or $1.70 if old power plants were required to meet modern ... standards."

Pepper cited Moran's legislation in urging the membership of NOTICe to "pay attention to and support Moran in his efforts with the Clean Smokestack Act. Moran has sent letters and has tried to help us with the Mirant plant for years," she said.

One of those letters, which was distributed to the gathering by Pepper, was addressed to W. Taylor Murphy Jr., secretary of Natural Resources, Commonwealth of Virginia, dated Oct. 15. In that letter Moran urged Murphy to enforce the Virginia Code which authorizes, "the Air Pollution Control Board to enjoin a violation of an operating permit such as the one governing the Potomac River plant, and impose up to $25,000 in penalties each day that a company is in violation."

Moran reminded Murphy, "Since May of this year, it appears that the plant [Mirant] has exceeded its air permit by over 1,000 tons, more than double the 1,019 tons allowed during the ozone season." He insisted, "Enforcement action against Mirant must be vigorously pursued. It is a matter of health and quality of life."

On Nov. 7, Alexandria City Manager Philip Sunderland sent a detailed memorandum to Mayor William D. Euille and City Council entitled, "Air Quality Issues Related To The Operations At Mirant Potomac River Generating Plant."

In it, he offered an evaluation of the Chimento/Hertel Report and the backup documents and studies that contributed to its conclusions.

"The report is an excellent compilation of some of the more recent studies relating to air pollution and the health effects of fine particulates, both in general and from fired powered plants in the Washington Region," Sunderland said.

The memo notes there are "Three types of particulate matter produced at the Mirant plant." It cites the third type as "coal dust that is released during the delivery, handling and storage of coal at the facility."

Sunderland said Mirant uses various measures "to control coal dust at the plant." He cites six of those methods. But, then admits, "Even with those measures, the city has received complaints in reference to particulates observed by the naked eye in the neighborhood of the plant."

The memo explains, the closest monitoring station to the Mirant plant, operated by the city is located at the Health Department, 517 N. St. Asaph St. It was installed in October 2001, "in response to community concerns."

BASED ON DATA produced by that station, the levels of pollutant particulates found in the north end of Old Town "are similar to ... levels found in the west end of the city in the early 1990s, and levels currently found in urban areas throughout Northern Virginia."

In order to gain more defined data on the Mirant plant situation, Sunderland said, "we plan to retain the services of a member of the faculty of the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Jonathan Levy, who was the author of one of the studies attached to the (Chimento/Hertel) Report.

"Working with the authors of the report, we are developing a series of questions and a scope of work for Dr. Levy." In addition, Sunderland informed the elected leadership, "City staff will continue to monitor VDEQ's [Virginia Department of Environmental Quality] enforcement action against Mirant" and "will continue its ongoing discussions with VDEQ concerning air quality monitoring near the Mirant Plant."

City staff inspects the plant "at least twice a year," according to the memo. "More frequent visits are made in response to noise and air pollution complaints. Staff will now increase the frequency of inspections to quarterly ... in order to better ensure that particulate control measures at the plant are in place and functional," Sunderland said.

Pepper told the audience, "Dr. Levy is also going to be talking to the community. What we need to do now is to keep following this issue very closely."

"It's an extremely complicated issue,” Macdonald said. “But, there are few issues as important as trying to control the air we are breathing."