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EPA to Mirant: Full Speed Ahead

EPA/DOE allows ncreased operations despite unanswered environmental questions.

Forget code Red or Orange days. What may be more important to the health of Alexandrians are the upcoming PM2.5 days.That’s the invisible particulate matter that can be emitted from Mirant’s Potomac River Generating Station that’s not even mentioned in the latest U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency blank check to Mirant “for immediate increased operations.” But, it can be the most harmful to the human respiratory system.

June 2 Mirant announced, “An Administrative Compliance Order [ACO] entered into with EPA prescribes how the plant can increase production, to near normal levels, as long as the plant meets the National Ambient Air Quality Standards in the greater Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia area. The directive from DOE requires that Mirant comply with the ACO and increase generation to ensure an adequate level of electric reliability in the Central D.C. area.”

Under the ACO, Mirant will operate “using day-ahead forecasted weather data rather than worst-case five-year estimates contained in computer models.” Mirant also “will install equipment that monitors Sulfur dioxide (SO2) in the vicinity of the plant,” according to their corporate news release.

There’s only one problem. There is no mention of PM2.5 or the plant’s experimental use of trona to reduce the emission of SO2.

PM2.5 is one of the smallest elements of particulate matter (PM). It is virtually invisible to the naked eye, according to Attorney John Britton, Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP, outside counsel to the City of Alexandria on the Potomac River Generating Station litigation.

“Even EPA is changing their standards on the emission of PM2.5 because it can cause so much damage to human respiratory systems. It’s absolutely amazing that they [DOE/EPA] came out with a blanket approval,” Bittton said.

“In the entire announcement there is no mention of PM2.5. At least you can see PM10, it is dust. But, PM2.5 can get into your lungs and nasal passages with a person not even knowing it. If you can see smoke coming out of the stacks you know PM2.5 is coming out,” Britton said.

“And, the use of trona increases particulate matter in the air. It changes gaseous SO2 into particulate matter. There is a potential for a great increase in airborne particulate matter, particularly in the vicinity of the plant,” Britton said.

HE WAS JOINED in that appraisal by Alexandria Vice Mayor Redella “Del” Pepper. “The City Council is deeply concerned about the possible health effects that could result from increased operations of the Mirant Power plant. The consent order allows Mirant to use unproven technology to justify substantially increased operations of the obsolete facility,” she said.

“I am shocked that the federal agency responsible for protecting the public from environmental hazards would reach this questionable agreement without consulting the local government closest to those whose health is most at risk,” said City Councilman Paul Smedberg.

“We are not convinced that the limited testing of trona technology conducted to date justifies such a wholesale increase in Mirant operations. The trona process is unproven at the scale envisioned by Mirant and has so far been subject to inadequate testing and monitoring,” Smedberg said.

While the EPA order requires Mirant to install local monitoring stations, “the change in operating parameters appears to negate the benefit of those stations,” Smedberg noted.

Alexandria has requested its own experts to evaluate the EPA order and report their findings, according to Pepper. “We also plan to meet with Mirant’s management to express our ongoing concern about harmful emissions,” she said.

ON THE OTHER SIDE of the controversy, Robert Driscoll, chief executive officer, Mirant Mid-Atlantic, sees DOE’s decision as understanding “just how critical the Potomac River Generating Station is to electric reliability in the Nation’s Capital area.”

He noted that the operating directive “takes into account concerns about air quality in the greater Washington, D.C. region including Northern Virginia.” “The important thing is that this plant be allowed to operate to serve the electricity needs for the residents in this region. We will do so while meeting our responsibilities for environmental stewardship,” Driscoll said.

However, none of the power generated at the 50 year old, coal powered, plant at the northern end of Old Town Alexandria serves Virginia.

During a programmed media tour of the plant last month, Driscoll proclaimed, “We are very proud of this plant and it is very critical for this area. We are looking to increase our transparency to both the media and the public to achieve a balanced image.”

As Britton pointed out the negotiated consent decree is still in the public comment period. “We have announced our intent to file objections to a variety of points in the decree. That’s one of the reasons I find it so amazing they [EPA/DOE] came out with a blanket approval to start up all five generators,” he said.

“The administration [Bush administration] is going to let them [Mirant] ramp up their operation when they [EPA/DOE] should be evaluating their operations on a limited scale. There is a potential for a great increase in particulate matter in the atmosphere by using trona,” Britton said.

“Although we’ve gone through the science and the proper process to identify the harm being done by this plant none of that seems to matter. We are being sacrificed at the alter of regionalism and that is very distressing,” said Poul Hertel who, along with Elizabeth Chimento, initiated the original air quality and “downwash” studies identifying potentially harmful air quality statistics.

“EPA has basically washed its hands of this situation. There is a whole host of issues they say they are going to check but that remains to be seen,” Hertel said.

That assessment was buttressed by Chimento. “Once again both EPA and DEQ (Virginia Department of Environmental Quality) have left the City out of the decision process. Alexandria citizens are being made to bear further burden,” she said.

“Mirant will be allowed to increase production by using trona in very large qualities. This is a completely untested process,” Chimento insisted.

“They will also be able to skirt the entire downwash problem by using weather predictions for a given day rather than long range. That’s very different from what we have used in the past,” Chimento claimed.

“There is nothing good about this for Alexandria residents. We are not happy with this decision,” Pepper declared.