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Votes

Federal Scientists Evaluate Alexandria Air

Konigsberg calls on ATSDR to collect and evaluate Mirant emissions.

Dr. Charles Konigsberg Jr., director, Alexandria Health Department, is waiting for a final report on Mirant’s emissions from the federal government. That report is due in early 2008.

On Jan. 24, 2006 he sent a letter to the Assistant Administrator, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), in Atlanta, seeking their aid in reviewing "the existing air quality and other environmental data related to Mirant's PRGS."

In the letter he wrote, "We would request that ATSDR assess the relationship of these data, including recently completed downwash studies, in relation to potential past, present and future health effects on residents living near the facility. The AHD (Alexandria Health Department) would also appreciate any recommendations of additional studies that may be appropriate in assessing the impact of the Mirant facility on human health in the area."

Konigsberg noted, "As Health director for the City of Alexandria, I feel that enough concerns have been raised and documented with respect to the impact of this coal-fired power plant on human health to lead me to request a Public Health Assessment by ATSDR."

It took ATSDR just one month to reply and accept the assignment. "ATSDR has reviewed your request and we are very interested in assisting your department by evaluating the potential health implications from exposure to environmental contaminants related to the power station's emissions," wrote William Cibulas Jr., PhD, Capt., U.S. Public Health Service, director, Division of Health Assessment and Consultation.

"After people kept asking me about the public health implication of the Mirant plant, I decided I needed to call in ATSDR. I wanted to get a completely independent expert opinion. They are strictly public health research and evaluation. They have no regulatory powers and are, therefore, not constrained by those procedures," Konigsberg said.

"ATSDR will look at and evaluate all the data from all the sources including Mirant. However, thus far Mirant has not submitted any data to ATSDR even though I have encouraged them to do so," Konigsberg said.

"Mirant challenged me as to why this ATSDR study was being done. They have repeatedly expressed their concerns about my relationship with the City," Konigsberg acknowledged.

"The advice I will give the City about Mirant's operations impact on the people of Alexandria will be based on the ATSDR report. This is a public health issue and to me it is a matter of public health concern. The request to ATSDR came from me as a public health officer, not a member of the city government," he emphasized.

"Mirant has challenged my motives. I am doing this as a local health official and for no other reason," Konigsberg stressed.

He serves as a State Health Official in charge of the Virginia Health Department's Alexandria Office.

ATSDR AGREED in January 2006 to evaluate the situation and sent in a team. That visit resulted in their letter of January 2007 which stated in part, "Our initial review of air dispersal modeling suggests a hazard to vulnerable populations from short-term, acute sulfur dioxide (SO2) exposures based on ATSDR health-based guidance values."

But, they also acknowledged, "There is significant uncertainty with the modeling data and this interpretation. Ongoing monitoring for air pollutants may show that the air dispersal model over-estimated SO2 exposures. Because of the uncertainty ... we cannot determine at this time if a public health hazard exists."

However, ATSDR did conclude that "considerable evidence exists that brief exposure (5-10 minutes) to SO2 levels greater than 0.5ppm may cause adverse health effects or reduced quality of life in exercising asthmatics. Adverse health effects or reduced quality of life is defined as resulting in the disruption of ongoing activities, the need for medication, or seeking medical attention."

Konigsberg explained that after their first visit ATSDR wanted to gather more information and perform additional studies. "They don't do that unless they feel there is an issue," he said.

ATSDR is an independent public health agency under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services which "evaluates the human health effects of exposure to hazardous substances." Based in Atlanta, with regional offices throughout the nation, it functions as a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its personnel are CDC employees. Alexandria's contact office is located in the Federal Government's Region 3 Office, in Philadelphia.

ATSDR's mission is to provide communities with information they can use to protect the health of their citizens. They often assist state and local health departments with environmental public health issues.

During their visit to Alexandria, ATSDR conducted short-term air monitoring, according to Lora Seigmann Werner, senior regional representative, ATSDR Region 3 Office, who holds a Master's Degree in Public Health. She also conducted a public information session at The Lyceum in Alexandria Aug. 2 on their activities and methodologies employed involving Mirant's PRGS.

"Based on our monitoring we were concerned about the air quality. What raised the red flag for us was the SO2 situation. We are able to look at a given situation without being encumbered by the constraints of the regulatory world," Werner said.

"We asked Mirant for certain data. We could not get it, so we decided to do our own monitoring. We put measuring devices to the north and west of the plant," she said.

"On our second visit, Mirant did provide us with a tour of the plant and explained their operations. However, this recently announced stack merge raises a lot more questions that we need to investigate," Werner said.

In order to provide Konigsberg and Alexandria with the information requested, ATSDR set up short-term air monitoring stations specifically in areas where people live and work within a one-mile radius of the PRGS to collect air samples within people's breathing zones, according to Werner. That monitoring took place over six weeks in June and July 2007.

"Unfortunately, our final report will not be ready until the early part of 2008," she said. Ironically, Mirant's stack merge is scheduled to be completed by February 2008 unless halted by the State Air Pollution Control Board or Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

"ATSDR will share the results of our finding at a public forum in Alexandria when they are complete. They will also be available online," Werner said.

ON AUG. 1, the day before ATSDR's Lyceum presentation, Mirant issued a press release announcing the result of a "comprehensive air quality testing for sulfur dioxide (SO2) at and near its PRGS." The data was collected by ENSR, an independent consulting firm working on behalf of Mirant beginning in mid-April. No cut off date for the collection period was stated in the release.

"We have collected more than 130,000 short term (5 minute) measurements of SO2 in outdoor air in Alexandria so far, and all of them have been well within health-based guidelines suggested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency," said David Shea, senior project manager, ENSR.

The Mirant announcement also stated, "Laura Green, Ph.D., president and senior scientist of another independent research and consulting firm, Cambridge Environmental, has reviewed these data, and found that all the reported values are all too small to harm health. Not one of the of the measured values has risen to the U.S. EPA range of concern with regard to possible health effects in people with asthma or others who may live, work, play, or exercise in the area."

Based on the ENSR monitoring results, Robert Driscoll, CEO, Mirant Mid-Atlantic, said, "As we have seen over and over again, when it comes to science and the facts, the PRGS is an environmentally safe plant."

That conclusion, or the opposite, is exactly what the ATSDR evaluation is designed to do based strictly and objectively on "science and the facts."