Has Mirant found a friend in the Governor's office? That is the unanswered question nagging at Alexandria City officials, the City Democratic Committee, and opponents of Mirant's continued operation of its Potomac River Generating Station (PRGS).
What has triggered this anxiety are two companion bills now wending their way through the legislative labyrinth in Richmond. They are House Bill 3113 and Senate Bill 1403. Each calls for elimination of the State Water Control Board, State Air Pollution Control Board, and Virginia Waste Management Board.
Both bills provide for the powers of all three groups to be concentrated in the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which, in the eyes of some, has become an adversary of citizen action against Mirant and a rubber stamp for the desires of the power company. Thus the confusion on the part of many as to why a Democratic governor would support such legislation.
The bills would create a new consolidated "Board of Environmental Quality" under the rationale of government consolidation and efficiency. At least that's the spoken rationale.
However, this new entity would "not have any authority to review, approve, or deny permits. Instead, it would be limited to adopting general regulations. All other responsibilities of the existing citizen boards, including the authority to issue licenses and permits, would be transferred to DEQ staff," according to Elizabeth Chimento, one of the co-leaders of the long fight to close Mirant's PRGS in North Old Town.
Near the end of 2006 the Air Pollution Control Board (APCB) voted unanimously to closely monitor the permitting decisions for the PRGS. "If these bills go through, not only will the Air Board no longer exist, but the new consolidated board would be powerless to do anything about Mirant," Chimento said.
"Instead, the consent decree process would be finalized entirely behind closed doors, with DEQ staff negotiating with Mirant alone," she stated. The public would have little or no opportunity to meaningfully participate in the process, according to Chimento.
Her assessment was buttressed by her co-leader in the Mirant fight, Poul Hertel. "Why a Democratic governor is so interested in taking this action is the real mystery behind this legislation. It is just too well manicured," he said.
"I'm thoroughly surprised that a Democratic governor would do what he has accused the Bush administration of doing — having industry lobbyists write legislation to benefit themselves at the cost of the people he is supposed to support," Hertel said.
Calls to the Governor’s office were not returned by press time.
Both bills are "being pushed aggressively by the Chamber of Commerce, the Virginia Coal Association, and other industry lobbyists," said Chimento. "It is both shocking and disappointing that Governor Kaine is supporting this. Northern Virginia elected Tim Kaine, expecting him to continue in Mark Warner's path of environmental stewardship," she said.
"DEQ has really degenerated since Kaine became governor. It has allowed Mirant to use faux science. It nit picks everything the residents and City suggest and practically gives Mirant a blank check to do what they want," he said.
ON JAN. 30 Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille sent a personal letter to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine raising the issue of this legislation. "In recent months, the State Air Pollution Control Board has agreed to take responsibility for the issuance of the permit for this facility (PRGS). The City viewed this action as a positive step that would result in a careful consideration of all the factors that should be considered in the development of this permit," Euille pointed out to Kaine.
Euille noted that the Control Board also promised to keep their actions "transparent." That promise "gave encouragement to the many Alexandria residents who believe that some of the previous enforcement and regulatory actions ... have been handled in a manner which did not fully protect their right to participate effectively in a regulatory process which materially affects their lives," Euille wrote.
"The City believes that it is important that the State Air Control Board be given sufficient time to complete all actions on this permit. It is for this reason that I and the rest of Alexandria City Council became concerned about the legislation to eliminate the Board and divest it of permit authority," he said. Euille also delivered the same message personally to the Governor and the Alexandria General Assembly delegation during a visit to Richmond.
The bottom line of the City's request to the Governor is that both bills be amended to include a so-called "reenactment clause" which would require that "nothing in the bills will become effective unless passed by next year's General Assembly," according to City Attorney Ignacio B. Pessoa.
Last Friday night such an amendment was agreed to in the House. That bill, HB 3113, with the amendment, passed the House on Tuesday night, Feb. 6, and was sent to the Senate. SB 1403, was also agreed to by the Senate and has been sent to the House. However, it is void of the "re-enactment clause" amendment.
Each house must now take some action on the other's legislation. The most likely scenario is that the final language will be hammered out in a conference committee. If the final language does not include the "re-enactment clause" or some process for enactment delay that is when pressure will build on Kaine to veto, according elected and party officials in Alexandria.
Alexandria is not alone in its objections to this legislation as noted by Euille in his letter to Kaine. "Many environmental advocacy and other groups have raised a number of other significant concerns about the impacts of this legislation, and a number of them have proposed that the bills be carried over to allow sufficient time to reach an accord with DEQ. If the bills are carried over that will address our concerns," Euille stated.
If that action does not take place, the fall back position is to have the "re-enactment clause" come into play. That would delay the effective date of the legislation to July 1, 2008.
Monday night, Feb. 5, the Alexandria Democratic Committee passed a resolution condemning the legislation and "recommending the governor either veto or amend the bills as necessary," according to Susan Kellom, chair, Alexandria Democratic Committee.
"The Committee completely supports the Mayor and his efforts on this matter and we will take action to support the year delay. We are very proud of the Mayor's actions to protect the interests of Alexandria residents," Kellom said. The resolution was to go to the governor on Tuesday or Wednesday, according to Kellom.
Action against the legislation is also being urged by the North Old Town civic association known as NOTICe and the Southern Environmental Law Center. E-mails have been sent to members of both groups, "No Pollution Without Representation!" urging immediate contact with legislators to defeat this legislation.
The Law Center notification argues that the single Board to replace the three citizen boards would be a mere tool of industry. "Such a de-clawed ‘uber-board’ would almost certainly turn into a rubber stamp for industry," they stated and backed that accusation with the following reasons:
* Environmental law is too complex to leave to one board.
* Permitting decisions should be publicly transparent.
* This is an attempt to retaliate against the air and water boards for recent actions they have taken to protect the public interest.
* This attempts to diminish opportunities for public input and
impose back-room tactics for fast-tracking permit approvals.
As Pessoa stated, "This legislation is not only ill advised, it is an insult to the Virginia tradition of citizen input and participation. It makes no sense to take away authority from citizen boards and put it into the hands of the bureaucracy."