After years playing it tight to the vest, Mirant Corporation seems to be taking a new approach guided by a new management team that is determined to reach out and open the door rather than bolt it from the inside. At least that was the message presented during a media tour on May 12.
"We're looking to increase our transparency to both the media and the public to achieve a balanced image," said Robert E. Driscoll, senior vice president and head of asset management, U.S. Region. He is also the new Chief Executive Officer Mid Atlantic business unit, replacing Lisa Johnson.
Johnson, along with the previous Mid Atlantic public relations director, Steven Arabia, and corporate public relation Dave Thompson have all be replaced, according to Corey Leigh, manager, Mirant Corporate Communication. When asked why at the outset of the media tour, the answer was that "since emerging from bankruptcy the entire top corporate management has been changed to bring a new image."
Prior to a top-to-bottom, inside and out, tour of the Potomac River Generating Station in North Old Town, Driscoll praised the operations of the plant. "We are very proud of this plant and it is very critical for this area," he said.
"It supplies electric power to the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant, the Naval Reserve Station, and most of the District of Columbia, including the White House and the FBI building. The power is equivalent to that needed by approximately 500,000 homes," he said.
Referring to all four of their generating stations, three in Maryland and the one in Virginia, Driscoll noted, "These plants are all low cost providers of electric power. They use a domestic fuel — coal. And, we use this by meeting our environmental stewardship."
Tying into a patriotic theme, Driscoll said, "This is all very critical to the country as fuel sources become more and more critical. We can lessen the dependency on the Middle East. The U.S. will also be importing natural gas. That's what makes coal a critical part of our energy independence."
Central to his argument was that "the need for electric power is growing at a rate of two percent per year with no new generating stations being built." When asked why no new plants were under construction, the answer was that due to deregulation of the electric power industry "there is no guarantee of a return on investment," thus no incentive.
"Coal is less than one third the cost of either oil or natural gas as a fuel. Eighty percent of the cost of electricity is the fuel used to generate its production," according to Mike Stumpf, group leader, Plant Operations.
On average the Potomac River plant uses 3,800 tons of coal per day, Stumpf explained. The Old Town plant site can store 135,000 tons of coal on property until it is used. "When the coal is unloaded from the rail cars that carry it to the plant it is spread out and treated to reduce dust getting into the air," Dave Cramer, air compliance and permitting, Mirant PRGS, stated as he pointed out the storage area far below the roof of the plant.
Included on the tour was a visit to the plant's control center which gauges the burning of the coal as well as the production and routing of electric power. As pointed out, following Mirant's generation, the power is "handed off" to Pepco for utilization. None of the power remains in Virginia.
When it came to questions of Ambient Air Quality monitoring which has been the primary bone of contention between the plant and the City of Alexandria, Cramer assured, "Emissions are monitored on all five stacks constantly and instrumentation is calibrated daily."
Other elements of control pertaining to air pollution, according to Cramer, include:
* Ash hauling is limited to the hours of 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
* All trucks are inspected daily to make sure their tarps are secure.
* Only experienced drivers are employed. They are familiar with designated haul routes and stick to them.
To strengthen their case for civic responsibility, Stumpf pointed to Mirant's river clean-up efforts, being a member of the certified Wildlife Habitat Council, treating all run off water prior to it being returned to the Potomac River, participating on the local Emergency Planning Committee, and being part of Alexandria's Educational Partnership.
He also noted, "Mirant uses approximately six percent of all electric power we generate. We are a consumer as well as a generator."
WHEN IT CAME TIME to answer questions pertaining to the recently entered Consent Decree with the Federal Court, Driscoll said, "The judge is in complete agreement with us on the elements of the
decree and we have no reason to believe it will not be sustained."
"Emission models now show that any pollutants are much lower than before we started using trona. We are the only ones using trona to monitor sulfur dioxide. The total emission reduction is to be 29,000 tons," Stumpf said. By 2010 that emission is to be down to 16,000 tons.
Following a stop at the plant's control room where three specialists maintain a constant watch of generation, distribution and demand calls for electric power, Stumpf explained that the real crisis to the company in the years ahead is to find qualified personnel to replace an aging work force.
"The average age of our present workforce is 46 to 48 years of age. There is a big turnover coming in the years ahead. It takes a good 10 years to train personnel to deal with all this equipment. Where do we get them?" Stump asked rhetorically.
At the beginning of the tour, plant officials distributed an unredacted copy of the trona injection tests conducted at the plant between Nov. 12 and Dec. 23, 2005. That report, delivered to the City in redacted form with all but four of its 21 pages, blacked out, was the center of a heated controversy.
Mirant maintained that they could not release the details of the trials without jeopardizing a patent for which they were applying. Once the U.S. Office of Patent and Trademark recognized the application Mirant did release the full report April 25.
Although trona, a white powdery substance from the Green River Valley in Wyoming, is used by other plants in the nation, the methodology of its use here was what Mirant maintained was necessary to protect. Its purpose is to reduce sulfur dioxide and flyash, according to Mirant personnel.
"We have done nothing but reduce our emissions each year," Cramer insisted. However, nothing before, during or following the tour was specifically directed at the Alexandria/Mirant controversy, problems cited by residents of Marina Towers pertaining to "downwash", complaints by northern Old Town residents, or the City's environmental specialists.
Pointing to three pipes on the roof of the plant emitting steam, Stumpf said, "People see that steam and assume it is causing air pollution. It is only steam and has no harmful effect."
After a two hour plus briefing, tour and PowerPoint presentation covering all aspects of Mirant's Potomac River Generating Station from the "how" to the "why" and all aspects in between, the primary question persisted -- can the plant coexist with its neighbors? Even Mirant stated the dilemma in a piece within the hand-out packet to the journalists invited to take the tour. "What was once an isolated facility is now juxtaposed in every direction with newer development and dense population. Balancing the need for
reliability with the various needs of the plant's constituency is a job Potomac River employees take seriously," it stated.