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City to Challenge FAA on Mirant Stacks

Will taller smokestacks really change anything?

A recent determination by the Federal Aviation Administration that an increase in the height of the smokestacks at Mirant’s Potomac River Generating Station poses no hazard to operations at Reagan National Airport may inadvertently give Alexandria a second chance at using zoning to shorten the operating life of the plant.

Any increase in the height of the stacks would require Mirant to come back through the zoning process to be granted a Special Use Permit to undertake the corrective measures, according to some analysts. This might present an opportunity for the City to again challenge the plant’s operations.

In December, Alexandria Circuit Court found in favor of Mirant when it challenged a decision by the Planning Commission, upheld by City Council, in the revocation of a previously approved SUP and the change of status of Mirant administrative office building. But, this could come into play only if Mirant decides to increase the height of their smokestacks.

The smokestack height issue was triggered by an FAA decision issued February 26 which determined that raising the stacks by 50 feet would pose “no hazard to air navigation.” This would take the stacks from their present height 164 above ground level to 214 feet above ground level or, considering the river, from 197 feet above mean sea level to 247 feet above mean sea level.

According to the FAA announcement, which was issued out of their Fort Worth, Texas, office, “The Federal Aviation Administration has completed an aeronautical study” which has “revealed that the structure (Mirant smokestacks) would have no substantial adverse effect on the safe and efficient utilization of the navigable airspace by aircraft or on the operation of air navigation facilities.”

However, FAA also stated, “This determination is subject to review if an interested party files a petition on or before March 28, 2006.” Their decision does not become final until April 7.

They also said , “This determination concerns the effect of this structure on the safe and efficient use of navigable airspace by aircraft and does not relieve the sponsor of compliance responsibilities relating to any law, ordinance, or regulation of any Federal, State, or local government body.”

It has been determined by Alexandria that there will be an objection filed, according to City Attorney Ignacio B. Pessoa. It is just a matter of when given the March 28 deadline.

“We submitted comments to the FAA and their original determination was that the present stacks pose a danger. Therefore, we are a little surprised that a Texas office of FAA made a decision an additional 50 feet poses no danger. We are also very curious as to why this came out of Texas,” Pessoa said.

U.S. Rep. James P. Moran also questioned the FAA rationale. “The Potomac Plant was blocked from constructing tall smokestacks when it was first constructed under National’s flight path in 1949, and I don’t know what circumstances have changed since that would allow them to be raised today,” Moran said.

ONE OF THE ORIGINAL ADVOCATES for closing the Mirant plant and an ongoing activist in the battle, Elizabeth Chimento, wrote a letter to FAA Obstruction Specialist William E. Merritt questioning the FAA determination.

“In April 2005, I spoke with you about Mirant’s application to increase stack height. I was told that airplane safety was the FAA’s only concern and that the serious environmental issues here in Alexandria regarding the plant are not a basis of FAA deliberation,” Chimento reminded Merritt.

Referring to the FAA comment in their determination that they had attempted negotiations with Mirant over the smokestack height issue, Chimento challenged Merritt on his statement that flight safety was FAA’s only concern.

“In view of your April statement” claiming flight safety as the FAA only concern “why was there negotiation with the plant at all? Also why was the plant’s “need to meet future operational needs” considered at all if airplane safety is the only criterion for FAA decision making?” she wrote.

“Finally, since the plant’s needs were considered in the FAA decision, then why weren’t the serious environmental issues compromising Alexandrians’ health also taken into account?” Chimento asked Merritt.

She closed with, “I await your response.” That remains the case.

ON NOV. 7, 2005 Merritt had called for input from any interested parties pertaining to the aeronautical study to be undertaken by the FAA concerning Mirant’s smokestack height. In that “Public Notice” Merritt emphasized, “To be eligible for consideration, comments must be relevant to the effect the structure would have on aviation” and be received “on or before Dec. 14, 2005.”

One individual who took him up on the offer was Harold W. Becker, president, Hal Becker Inc. of Alexandria. In his comments to Merritt some of the points made by Becker were:

* Aircraft operations in the airspace controlled by DCA are severely constrained by restricted airspace and noise abatement procedures. Any further encroachment into that airspace results in loss of navigable airspace.

* The initial FAA study found that increasing the height of the stacks would require an increase in the climb gradient for departures from DCA runway 19 to meet required obstacle clearance standards. Forty percent of flights use runway 19.

* Increasing the height of the stacks “has a high probability of causing interference with air traffic control radar” and other navigational instruments.

* The increased climb gradient would likely result in an increase in aircraft noise south of the airport.

* If Mirant’s proposal is approved “it could encourage future proposals by Mirant to add more height” to the stacks or open the door to other entities for construction project that might further limit operational airspace.

* Under safety issues he cited consideration for low flying aircraft such as helicopters on emergency response missions in adverse weather and the possibility of pilot distraction during the critical phases of takeoff and landing.

Becker emphasized, “Alexandria strongly opposes any increase in the height of the emission stacks.” The next step is once again up to the city to take action prior to the March 28 deadline.

Although several calls were made to Mirant spokespersons for comment there was no response to call back requests.