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Votes

Council Revokes Mirant's Special Use Permit

Alexandria takes legal steps to force Mirant to close the city’s only coal-fired power plant.

Making its opposition official, the Alexandria City Council voted Saturday, Nov. 13 to move forward with an ordinance to change the conditions under which Mirant Mid-Atlantic operates its coal-fired Potomac River Power plant.

“I am speaking on behalf of the Rosemont Citizens Association and we are convinced that the Mirant power plant is adversely affecting the health of people in Rosemont and all over the city of Alexandria,” said Katy Canada at the public hearing. “We believe that the city should take all steps necessary to see that the plant is closed.”

Many other residents spoke, reciting the litany of violations for which the plant has been cited. These violations recently led to Mirant entering into a consent decree with the U. S. Department of Environmental Protection Agency, the U. S. Department of Justice and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The action was brought by VDEQ because of repeated emission violations at the plant. As part of that agreement, Mirant agreed to take a number of actions not only at the Alexandria facility but at its Maryland plants as well.

“We have made significant investments in the Potomac River plant and, under the terms of the consent decree, will do much more for the region’s air quality than could have been accomplished just by dealing with the Potomac River plant,” said Lee Davis, a vice president for Mirant.

Several Mirant employees spoke for keeping the plant open. “I worked at the plant for more than 20 years and raised two healthy daughters in Alexandria,” said one woman who is now retired from Mirant. “By closing this plant, you are taking away the ability of more than 120 good employees to support their families.”

Councilman Andrew Macdonald expressed his sympathy for the employees. “I have visited the Potomac River plant and found it to be a well-run facility,” he said. “I am certain that every employee there does a good job. It is a simple fact that these coal-fired facilities are old and do not meet the air quality standards that we should require,” he said.

Another argument for not passing the ordinance came from Craig Glazer, a vice president at JPM, which manages the region’s power grid.

“We have no economic interest in the operation of any power plant,” he said. “Think of us as the region’s air traffic controller for power. We manage the way that power flows from the plants in the region to where it is needed. While it is true that Alexandrians get no direct power from the Potomac River plant, they do benefit because the power produced at the plant is integral to the entire grid. Removing it from the grid increases the likelihood of blackouts in the region on peak days.”

Councilman Paul Smedberg was incredulous. “This is a coal-fired plant,” he said. “It is old and, because it is old, subject to maintenance problems. I cannot believe that you have not been planning for its replacement. You should have seen this coming for some time. I wonder why now, at the last minute, we are discussing this issue which is of such vital importance.”

Glazer responded. “We certainly are looking at other options,” he said. “No one local government can solve this problem. It is a regional issue. I sympathize with your desire to protect the people who live in Alexandria. However, by passing an ordinance such as this, you are making it more difficult for us to attract developers who might build other power plants in the region.

“We are working with Maryland and D.C. to come up with solutions that are comprehensive but that will take time and the cooperation of all of the states. We are asking you to give us that time and think about the far-reaching consequences of your actions,” he said.

ACCORDING TO FIGURES provided by Mirant, the plant produces less than 10 percent of the region’s electricity, providing power directly to areas of Washington, D.C. It was only “not available” three percent of the time last summer during peak usage.

“I am tired of Alexandrians paying the price for the good of the region,” said Councilwoman Joyce Woodson. “It’s time we did something to protect our own citizens.”

The council revoked the special use permit that allowed the non-complying use of a coal-fired power plant in the city and made coal-fired power plants non-conforming uses subject to abatement.

“This does not mean that this plant will close tomorrow or even next year,” said Mayor William D. Euille. “What it means is that we have taken steps to eliminate a known health hazard that is impacting our citizens.”

The city is proposing other land use ordinances that will further limit Mirant’s ability to operate.