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Citizens March for Clean Air

Less than 80 people rallied Saturday at Market Square to support the Sierra Club's call for "Cleaner Air for Alexandrians."

When it came time to march to the Mirant's Potomac River Power Plant on the north edge of Old Town, that number had dropped to 35. But no one could question the enthusiasm of those at Market Square or those that had the fortitude to make the long trek in the unusually hot, humid weather.

Scheduled to begin at noon, the rally didn't get underway until nearly 12:30 p.m. as members of the Mount Vernon Group, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, scouted up and down King Street attempting to convince people to attend. The event's primary purpose, as stated in the Sierra Club news release, was to call "on Mirant Corporation to either clean up or shut down."

Lead off speaker, Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper, left no doubt which of the two alternatives she supported. "Those of us gathered here today are making a statement about our concerns. We want Mirant closed. There is no place in this city for a coal-burning plant," she said.

"We have given them seven years to clear out. They have sued us. But, we will prevail. However, we would appreciate a little help from the Bush administration and the EPA," Pepper said.

"This plant doesn't make any sense now. We know these pollutants cause disease and premature death. We are fed up with dirty air and we are not going to take it any more," she said to the activists assembled on Market Square.

"We are here to remind everyone that clean air and clean water are not luxuries. We are here to commit to having every energy source in the nation operate on a clean basis," said City Councilman Rob Krupicka.

HIS POINT was echoed by City Councilman Andrew Macdonald. "It's not just the little particulates in the air. It's the mercury and all the pollutants that are causing these health hazards," he said.

Tim Aiken, aide to U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D-8), speaking on Moran's behalf said, "The Potomac River Power Plant is an anachronism, really a dinosaur that's deserving of extinction. Completed in 1949 it was built long before we knew or understood the health and environmental consequences of burning coal."

Moran's presentation stated, "The landmark environmental laws that went on the books during the early 1970s are under assault. Today's White House and Congress now collude to bury scientific findings, attack the messenger and attempt to mislead the public ...."

He further noted, "Under the bipartisan 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, the Mirant power plant in Alexandria would have been required to reduce its emissions of airborne mercury by about 90 percent during the next three years. But after recent rule changes by EPA ... the Mirant plant will not have to reduce its mercury emissions one iota."

Carrying various placards and shouting slogans, those still present after a long series of speakers were led by Sierra Club staff on a march to the Marina Towers side of the plant at 501 Slaters Lane. There they were greeted by residents of the condominium that has experienced some of the most adverse elements from the plant, according to several scientific studies.

GATHERED IN A SEMI-CIRCLE, the marchers heard from Marina Towers resident Toni Lublin who began her remarks by blowing soot particles from her hand into the air. "Do you have any idea what I just blew into the air? Are you wondering what it was and how it will affect me?" she asked.

As it turned out the sooty substance was what Lublin said she wipes "almost daily" from window sills and table tops in her home. "I now listen more intently as friends and neighbors speak of health problems," she said.

"Mirant has a face ... Mirant is not just red brick and smoke ... Mirant is a company made up of people — men and women with decision-making capacity ... I ask you, the faces of Mirant — Will you choose to continue to operate this power plant at the risk of our health? Would you choose corporate profit over the health of your own child?" Lublin asked.

She ended her talk to the marchers with, "And what did I blow into the air? I choose to believe — Hope."

In 2003, the State of Virginia issued a notice of violation of the Clean Air Act to the plant for excessive nitrogen oxide emissions, according to the Sierra Club. "There is a better way. Facilities like this were never meant to be operating this long. The technology exists today to help protect the surrounding community," said Rob Swennes, a volunteer with the Sierra Club Mount Vernon Group.