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Air Pollution and Mirant: Council Gets Data

After two hours of listening to technical data, Alexandria City Council's work session on "Air Quality and Mirant Potomac River Power Plant" boiled down to the opening statement expressed by Mayor William D. Euille.

"The environmental impact of Mirant is of great concern to us. We would like Mirant to close shop and leave the city as soon as possible. That's not going to happen. But we do want them to correct any violations as soon as possible," he said.

Triggering the session was a report submitted to the city in late August dealing with "Mirant Power Plant Emissions and Health Effects." Under the co-authorship of Elizabeth Chimento and Poul Hertel, two north end Alexandria residents, the report identified air quality issues related to the power facility and described actions necessary to deal with alleged air pollution issues associated with the plant's operation.

In order to assess the situation, the city engaged the services of Dr. Jonathan Levy, Harvard School of Public Health. He was also the author of one of studies cited in, and attached to, the Chimento/Hertel report. He participated in the March 31, Council work session via speaker phone.

City Manager Philip Sunderland noted there are two types of air pollutants to be dealt with in relation to the Mirant plant. One is composed of small and large particles and the other is oxides of nitrogen, "NOx" emissions.

Sunderland explained, "The small particle matter is inhaleable and poses a human health impact. The larger particle matter is less of a health matter. It has more of a nuisance impact. NOx goes to the regional ozone issue."

He noted, "The small particle matter in the city is a little less than the national standard." He then asked if everyone present agreed that, "In the long term we want the plant to disappear. But, in the short term we want the maximum reduction in harmful emissions?"

Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper said, "Chances of closing this plant are very slim because it services too many federal buildings [in Washington, D.C.]." Councilman Rob Krupicka asked, "What can we actually do to encourage the phase out of the plant?"

Euille answered, "We can make a statement that we want the plant phased out by a certain date and making it very well known that we want this to happen."

However, as Sunderland pointed out, "We have land use power and we can regulate through that power. But we can't make them go away until they have time to amortize their investment."

Exacerbating the problem was a more recent study commissioned by Chimento/Hertel addressing the problem known as "Downwash." It deals with pollutants emitted from low smoke stacks that strike high rise building in the immediate vicinity of the emitting source.

THE REPORT specifically addressed the impact of airborne pollutants on Marina Towers [located adjacent to the power plant.] "This report clearly emphasizes the point we have been making all along — proximity matters," Hertel insisted at the meeting.

"We asked that the problem of short stacks specifically be addressed," Chimento added, "Since it was not we engaged the services of Sullivan Environmental Consulting."

David Sullivan, head of the Alexandria firm, a certified meteorologist, explained, "This is an unusual situation. By the time the pollutants get to the ground they have lost a lot of their danger. They are diluted both horizontally and vertically."

He noted however, that due to the proximity of Marina Towers to the plant and given the natural air currents, the upper floors of the 14-story condominium were receiving heightened impact from pollutants. "The question is are EPA guidelines being met," he asked rhetorically.

"The Potomac River [Mirant] power plant ... has very low stacks for a coal-fired facility, which was apparently deemed necessary because it is located along the flight path for Washington National Airport. One potential consequence ... for low stacks is the direct impaction of plumes into nearby high-rise residential areas ...," Sullivan stated in the introduction to his report.

Marina Towers is located "about 300 feet south of the southern tip of the Mirant Power Plant complex," according to Sullivan. The power plant building is "about 116 feet tall with five stacks extending on a north-south line across the top...The stacks are about 45 feet above the roof of the building," Sullivan noted. Marina Towers is placed at 140 feet high by Sullivan.

"The object of this analysis was to evaluate the likelihood for plume impaction onto the upper floors of the Marina Towers complex. Such a situation for a coal-fired power plant would have the potential to violate National Ambient Air Quality Standards and possibly create exposure to toxic air pollutants that are above acceptable health criteria," Sullivan's report stated.

"In our judgment, further review of this potential health issue needs to be done in conformance with standard EPA modeling procedures ... to confirm that all National Ambient Air Quality Standards are being met ...," Sullivan concluded.

IN HIS REPORT to Council, Dr. Levy made the following points:

*Current emissions from the five power plants in the Washington region contribute to 270 deaths per year across the region; 80 cardiovascular hospital admissions (CHA) among the elderly and 190 pediatric asthma emergency room visits (ERV) per year.

*Of the regional total only "a small fraction of the total health impacts occur within Alexandria." Of all five power plants in the region, Potomac River is shown to have the highest percentage of deaths per year impact due to potential pollution causation. But it is listed as only "0.9 percent" out of a total for all five of "2.3 percent."

*In the categories of CHA and ERV per year, the Potomac River plant is listed by Levy at 0.3 percent and 0.4 percent respectively. The totals in each of those categories is 0.7 percent CHA and 1.2 percent ERV.

He concluded, "Applying Best Available Control Technology [BACT] to the five plants would reduce health impacts across the region by 210 deaths, 59 cardiovascular hospital admissions among the elderly, and 140 pediatric asthma emergency room visits per year."

For the Mirant plant, that would translate to a reduction in deaths per year to 0.5 from 0.9; in CHA per year from 0.3 to 0.2; and in ERV from 0.4 to 0.3. The overall totals in each category would decline to 1.7, 0.5, and 0.9 respectively.

In the final analysis, Levy stated, "There are clearly multiple factors that are uncertain and could influence the magnitude of the estimates." However, "The mere existence of uncertainty is not sufficient reason to delay regulatory decisions, especially when the level of knowledge is already high and the stakes are substantial."

He drew three basic conclusions from his study:

1. While the Mirant plant is "not the dominate contributor to either deaths" or the pollutant concentrations in Alexandria, "it is likely the single source that contributes most" to airborne pollutant levels in Alexandria.

2. It is "quite clear that decisions about emission controls at the power plants need to take account of the regional health impacts, since local health impacts contribute a relatively small fraction of the total."

3. "It is important to understand how individuals would benefit from various emission control plans." Although, "it is not possible to make specific policy recommendations solely based on these analyses ... this report should provide a more detailed understanding of how local, regional, and national sources contribute to air pollution health risks in Alexandria ..."

At the conclusion of the session it was decided that a meeting with Mirant would be scheduled "as soon as possible." It was also agreed that, following that meeting, letters will be sent to EPA and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality on the entire regional problem.

As Council member Andrew H. Macdonald noted, "We should be concerned with ecological problems as well as human."