As the hour approached 2 a.m. Friday morning, the Alexandria Planning Commission voted to officially start the death clock running on Mirant's Potomac River Power Plant. They did this by unanimously amending the city's Zoning Ordinance "to revoke the noncomplying use status of coal-fired power plants" granted in 1992.
But, this represented only part of the agenda to remove the plant from the north end of Old Town, where it has existed since 1949. Two other elements pertaining to the text amendment had to be deferred due to lack of proper notice. It is anticipated these will be reconsidered at the December meeting.
As with all matters before the Planning Commission, its actions are only recommendations to City Council. It now remains a question of whether that body should move ahead to approve the adopted amendment at its upcoming meeting or wait until the entire package dealing with Mirant is approved at the commission's next meeting.
Mayor William D. Euille and most members of City Council have stated, at various times in the past year, that the ultimate goal is to have Mirant's Potomac River Plant "leave the city as soon as possible." That desire is based on the alleged negative impact emissions from the coal-powered generating plant have on the city's air quality.
Based on advice from City Attorney Ignasio Pessoa, conveyed to the commission in a Sept. 29, 2004 memorandum, they took the action to revoke the plant's noncomplying use status thereby categorizing it as a nonconforming use "subject to abatement."
"Revocation of noncomplying use status results in the use becoming a nonconforming use" under the Zoning Ordinance which then "requires that operation of the use terminate within seven years" unless "a special use permit allowing continued operation... is approved" or "a special use permit extending the seven-year abatement" is approved, according to Pessoa's memorandum.
If and when the council approves the actions of the commission, the seven-year countdown theoretically begins. At a council meeting in late October, Euille urged the commission "to move the process along." That happened with this vote.
UNDER THIS ACTION, according to Pessoa:
* "No alterations to a building which directly prolongs the life of the nonconforming use shall be permitted.
* "Fixtures used in connection with the generation of power ... may not be installed, replaced or upgraded." Ordinary repairs are permitted.
He further noted, "Since 1992, several types of uses have had this favored status revoked because the city has determined that the prolonged operation of such uses would have an adverse impact on the community."
On the opposite side of the argument at last Thursday's meeting were representatives of Mirant and their attorney Harry P. Hart. "This is an important public service for this entire region. And, they have made major investments in this plant," Hart told the commission.
During a powerpoint presentation Mirant representatives noted:
"* Air quality is a regional issue, and Potomac River has only a small impact on the region's and Alexandria's air quality;
* Mirant's regional agreement benefits Alexandria many times more than any single solution for Potomac River;
* Potomac River has improved performance while providing the same public service to customers."
However, they ended the presentation with: "The Planning Commission and City Council would be wise to assess the benefits of the recent settlement and consent order, as well as consider the plant's role in electric grid reliability prior to adopting measures which were contemplated in their absence," they said.
In his presentation, Hart made the point that Mirant employs approximately 120 workers that contribute to the local economy. That point was buttressed by an official statement from Mirant following the commission's vote issued by Steve Arabia, director, Mirant External Relations. It stated:
"The city's actions are unwarranted because Mirant is already aggressively addressing the issues cited as reasons for these actions. Mirant's record of responsiveness is plain for all to see.
* NOx emissions were identified by regulators as an issue — Mirant responded by signing an agreement that has been hailed by environmentalists and air quality regulators as providing significant environmental benefits to the city.
* The potential for dust and flyash to occasionally leave the plant was said to be of concern — Mirant responded by agreeing to fund $1 million worth of projects identified by outside experts and recommended by city staff to help prevent dust from leaving the plant site.
* Some residents voiced concern about the possibility of "downwash" from the plant — Mirant responded by agreeing to fund a study under the auspices of environmental regulators that will look into the issue and commits the company to address the outcome.
* Shutting down the plant would jeopardize the livelihoods of 120 workers at the plant and would put at risk reliable electric supply to the region. The city's own consultant said that Mirant contributes only 1-4 percent of the fine particulates in the city. All these points should be considered as the city contemplates its actions."
BUT, AS ROGER WAUD, vice president, Marina Towers Association, and president, North Old Town Independent Citizens Association, stated, "It's a good thing the Planning Commission approved this. It's a tool the city needs to have."
During his public testimony, in reference to Mirant's statement that 120 employees' lives would by impacted, Waud, a resident of Marina Towers, said, "I'm here representing 600 residents of Marina Towers. We have $600,000 worth of work that needs to be done to our building due to sulfur dioxide emissions from the Mirant plant."
Those emissions are often referred to as "downwash" when they strike a tall building located near the stacks of a coal powered plant. "Downwash" refers to the phenomenon of the particulates washing down the outer walls of the building rather than dissipating into the atmosphere.
Elizabeth Chimento, a resident of North Pitt Street, and co-sponsor of an independent study addressing the downwash phenomenon, along with Poul Hertel, a North Alexandria resident, told the commission, "Health effects on both the adjacent neighborhoods and the city from this plant are serious, necessitating the SUP revocations and text amendments ...."
The health effects she outlined included:
* Small soot particles emitted from coal-fired power plants are associated with increases in asthma, upper respiratory illnesses, lung cancer, heart disease and strokes.
* The Potomac River Power Plant "is likely the single largest contributor PM 2.5 (particulate matter) in Alexandria as noted by Dr. Jonathan Levy, Harvard School of Public Health
* Chronic exposure to particulate matter shortens life expectancy from one to three years.
* A preliminary study indicates downwash is occurring on the upper floors of Marina Towers as often as 1200 hours per year.
"Due to these serious problems, I urge you to withdraw the SUP's and effect the zoning change to protect the public health of Alexandrians," Chimento said.
Katy Cannady, civic activist and member of the Rosemont Citizens Association, summed up the commission's vote as "a good first step. But this is going to go on for a long time."
She further stated, "The devil is going to be in the new SUP's. That's where the real fight is going to be. If they [Mirant] really chose to clean up and make the millions of dollars in investments it would take, they could be in business for a long time. But, I don't expect that to happen."
Cannady said, "When the new SUP's come up, that's when the rubber is really going to hit the road. It's going to be a tough fight with scientific testimony on both sides."