Admiral Farragut at the Battle of Mobile Bay issued his famous order, "Damn the torpedoes — full speed ahead." That apparently is the mantra driving Mirant Corporation to proceed with its controversial stack merge at its Potomac River Generating Station (PRGS) in north Old Town Alexandria.
Last Thursday they issued a press release announcing they were "moving forward with an internal reconfiguration" of the stacks at PRGS "to substantially improve air quality in the surrounding community." Judging from the vituperation of the reaction from residents as well as local and state elected officials it did anything but improve air quality.
"Mirant's actions are unilateral, disrespectful and in total disregard for the environmental laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia," said U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D-8). "Mirant is sticking its dirty thumb in the public's eye, going above the law to carry out their polluting ways."
His reaction was joined by State Sen. Patricia S. "Patsy" Ticer (D-30), Del. David L. Englin (D-45), Alexandria Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper, City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa, and chief of environmental quality in Alexandria's Department of Transportation & Environmental Services, William Skrabak. Each expressed outrage at Mirant's action and an expectation that the State Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) would step-in to prevent Mirant from moving ahead.
"Mirant's attitude is totally unacceptable. I have contacted David Paylor (DEQ Secretary) and asked what they intend to do to stop this. I also told him they needed to send DEQ inspectors to the plant as soon as possible," said Englin.
"I'm not surprised — disappointed but not surprised. They act like the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board doesn't exist. It's unfortunate that they can't seem to do things that will ameliorate the pollution. This action is just going to spread the pain to more people," said Ticer.
"We are going to be counting on DEQ to enforce the rules. The Air Board has required a permit. There seems to be no limit to what Mirant will do. They just don't seem to care about being a good neighbor," Pepper said.
"We have requested both DEQ and EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) to stop this outrageous action by Mirant. If they do not act then we will act. We are trying to let [DEQ and EPA] take the lead," said Pessoa.
"The City has repeatedly demonstrated that the stack merge as proposed by Mirant is an illegal ‘dispersion technique,’ which will exponentially increase pollution from this plant. In recent filings with the Richmond Circuit Court, the Commonwealth implicitly compared Mirant's respect for human life and public health to that of a suicide bomber," Pessoa said in informing City officials of the Mirant decision.
"This latest action confirms beyond any doubt the company's contempt for the Clean Air Act's processes for protecting human health and the environment, for the lawful authority of the Commonwealth, and for the residents of Alexandria," he stated.
"We are exploring all our options, legal and governmental. We've contacted the various state and federal officials asking them to take action. So far we have not heard back from anyone," Skrabak said last Friday afternoon.
THAT SILENCE WAS particularly deafening from the office of Gov.Timothy Kaine (D). Following several calls to his press secretary, Kevin Hall, and a subsequent call by Englin to Larry Roberts, an aide to the Governor, there was no response.
As of Tuesday morning Kaine's office had neither returned phones calls nor issued a statement indicating his reaction to Mirant's actions. Alexandria anti-Mirant activists, as displayed on signs at several recent local demonstrations, have viewed Kaine's past silence as indicating he is more sympathetic to Mirant than Alexandria citizens.
In previous contacts, Hall has insisted that the Governor's office is merely serving as a "facilitator" on the Mirant situation. "The expertise lies with the DEQ," he has maintained.
As of Tuesday morning DEQ took that lead responsibility. "In response to Mirant's announcement that it is ‘moving forward with an internal re-configuration of its stacks,’ DEQ Director David K. Paylor has called a special meeting of the State Air Pollution Control Board," according to William Hayden, director, DEQ Public Affairs.
Although there was extensive public comment on this issue during the Air Board's May hearing, the Board will provide "limited opportunity" for comment at the upcoming meeting, Hayden stated. No meeting date or place had been scheduled as of Tuesday morning.
DEQ did announce they "will not take action related to the stack merge before this meeting, in keeping with the Board's desire to make all permit-related decisions on the Potomac River plant." They are monitoring activities at the plant and conducted an inspection after receiving the Mirant notice, according to Hayden.
"DEQ will continue with frequent inspections to monitor activities at the plant," the announcement added. DEQ acknowledged their inspection observed construction equipment staging "but no actual construction."
ON THE FLIP side Mirant had little hesitancy in exuding confidence that they were not only in the right but also were performing an environmentally positive community action in moving ahead with their internal "stack merge." They also saw no conflict with their on-going court case against DEQ concerning the Air Board's May decision to require permits for planned actions at PRGS.
When asked why Mirant was moving ahead with the stack merge, Debra Bolton, vice president and assistant general counsel, Mirant Corporation, gave a very succinct answer. "Because we can," she said.
"Our lawyers have said we are within our rights to move ahead and it would be truly irresponsible for us not to move ahead. It is being done internally. There will be no evidence on the outside of the plant," Bolton said.
The five emission stacks will be "merged," or internally reconfigured, into two stacks with higher exit gas velocities, eliminating "downwash" of emissions in areas near the plant, according to their Aug. 16 press release. The external physical structure of the stacks will not change.
Mirant was given approval by the Federal Aviation Administration to raise the height of their stacks by 50 feet. Such approval was necessitated due to the plant's proximity to Reagan National Airport.
However, Bolton maintained that raising the stacks by 50 feet would not accomplish the same goal as the internal merge with an increased velocity of the emissions. "There is also the consideration that before we could increase the stack heights we would need approval from the City and that would require an application and public hearing," Bolton said.
"The internal stack merge does not increase capacity or emissions. It should eliminate any concerns that the community may still have about downwash," Bolton stated in the release.
Heralded by Mirant as the "Final Phase" of an environmental
improvement project which, according to their definition, commenced with the use of trona to reduce or eliminate the release of sulfur dioxide into the air. "We enhanced our environmental performance significantly with the installation of our trona system. Now we're completing this two-part environmental project," the release stated.
"The science demonstrates that a stack merge at the Potomac River plant is best for the environment and public health. As a 17-year citizen of the City of Alexandria and the mother of two school-aged children, I am pleased that we are moving forward with this solution. It is the right thing to do," Bolton stated in the release.
She also maintained that the $30 million project "does not increase capacity or emissions." That was met with skepticism by Skrabak.
"They (Mirant) wouldn't make a $30 million investment without hopes of a substantial return on their money. They want to get their capacity to the pre-trona levels. Also, their use of trona was never billed as a two-part operation connected to a stack merge until the Air Board made its permit decision," Skrabak said.
Although the use of trona has reduced the emission of sulfur dioxide, it has increased the amount of air particulates, according to some studies. Skrabak maintained, "Mirant has never submitted an analysis on the trona new source review to either DEQ or EPA. They have violated the EPA Consent Order."
Bolton insisted, "Science supports us and is not politically motivated," referring to Moran's swift reaction to the company announcement. "I find Moran's reaction unfortunate but not surprising. He is trying to stop environmental progress," Bolton said.
She also maintained that Mirant has "gotten positive response from community residents who support us." However, when asked if she could supply some of those names for positive quotes she declined.
Simultaneous with the issuance of their news release announcing the stake merge, Mirant commenced the physical process. "Right now we are only in a staging phase, nothing else," Bolton said. However, trucks were photographed moving in equipment and parts to get the project underway simultaneous with the news release.
She also was contradicted by the company news release which stated, "Work will begin immediately and the project is expected to be complete in February 2008. Mirant has notified federal, state and local officials of its decision to begin the stack merge project."
Moran has urged both EPA and DEQ to issue a notice of
violation/cease and desist order. "The Department of Environmental Quality must sign off on any structural changes made by this outdated coal-fired plant. DEQ must not allow its authority to be usurped by these bullying tactics," Moran stated.