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Votes

Air Control Board Throws Down The Gauntlet

Mirant faces off against a phalanx of adversaries.

Go home, sit down at the same table, and try to negotiate a mutually agreeable revised Consent Order. If that does happen, we will impose our own order.

That, in essence, was the outcome after a full day of testimony from players on both sides of the Mirant Potomac River Generating Station (PRGS) issue before the State Air Pollution Control Board in Richmond on Monday. The Board's admonition was directed at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the City of Alexandria, and Mirant.

That mutually agreed upon Consent Order, if attained, is to be presented to the Board at their April 10 meeting in Lexington, Va. Failing mutual agreement, the Board indicated it will impose its own order to govern interim operations at the plant.

During their March 26 meeting, the Control Board also rejected, for the present, the Consent Order proposed by DEQ staff — to become effective June 1, 2007, upon expiration of the existing federal EPA consent order governing PRGS emissions, according to Elizabeth Chimento, a leader in the effort to close PRGS and who testified during the Board's public hearing.

When it came to the PRGS issue, the primary purpose of this Board meeting held in the General Assembly Building was to hear testimony pertaining to the DEQ/Mirant Consent Order and permitting issues. The Board assumed control of the latter on September 25, 2006.

In testifying for Mirant, Robert E. Driscoll, senior vice president, noted that "Mirant is committed to meeting its dual obligations of providing low cost, reliable electricity to the citizens of the Greater Washington, DC region and meeting our environmental obligations, including ensuring that our operations protect the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS)."

He then went on to cite a series of examples of how "Mirant has demonstrated its commitment to environmental protection." These included such items as: "Investing tens of millions of dollars in environmental protection measures;" Installing emission controls ahead of schedule; initiating the Trona injection system to control SO2 emissions; and cooperating with DEQ and EPA to ensure that PRGS

"does not contribute to an actual exceedance of the NAAQS."

Admitting that an exceedance did occur February 23, Driscoll

insisted that "would not have occurred without the emergency order from the US Department of Energy and adverse weather conditions. Had we not been required to operate ... Mirant would have reduced generation ... to ensure that no exceedance occurred. We were not allowed to reduce the load under the DOE order." DEQ issued a formal exceedance violation citation Monday.

In her testimony before the Board, Chimento pointed out that between August 31, 2006 and March 15, 2007, "there have been 286 exceedances" and on one day within that time frame "23 exceedances occurred within two hours from one unit alone." On January 15 successive exceedances occurred in the morning and evening, according to Chimento.

"Every time there is an opacity event (type of exceedance), the health of more than 3,000 people living near the facility is put at risk. We therefore take these opacity exceedances very seriously," Chimento testified.

Driscoll told the Board of Mirant's intention to merge the stacks and, hopefully, to increase their height by 50 feet. "A combination of the merge and the stack height increase would be optimal," he said.

As for the Consent Order which Mirant has negotiated with DEQ, Driscoll categorized that as "fair to all concerned. It clearly ensures protection of the NAAQS."

In seeking the Board's approval for the DEQ/Mirant agreement, Discoll stated, "Mirant will ensure that we comply with applicable environmental obligations. Our agreement with DEQ is the result of tough negotiations, and as I have stated, protects the environment and human health."

NEARLY EVERY CLAIM made by Driscoll was rejected by others testifying before the Board or through written testimony. In a 10 page letter from John Britton, outside legal counsel to the City of Alexandria on the Mirant issue, and Ignacio B. Pessoa, City Attorney, to the Board dated March 22, they stated, "Mirant's denials are unconscionable."

In order to better monitor the air quality in Alexandria and immediate environs, the City letter called for the establishment of "a local Air Pollution Control District." This, Britton and Pessoa maintained, "would ensure a focus on the public health and away from enhancing a corporate agenda."

They stated, "A local air pollution control district is consistent

with the Board's mandate to consider the character and degree of the public health impacts of the Potomac River plant and the suitability of the site in which the plant is located."

Such a district would have on-site representatives of the regulatory agencies and the authority to obtain pertinent records from the plant, "with the plant's emissions data submitted on a daily basis," according to the City letter. "Mirant has refused to fully disclose essential data to allow public validation of its ongoing modeling procedures and results," they stated.

ONE OF THE Alexandria sites most impacted by the PRGS is Marina Towers, located immediately next to the plant on the North side. It was at Marina Towers were the polluting phenomena of "downwash" was studied and confirmed.

In her testimony, Mary C. Harris, a member of the Marina Towers Condo Association and North Old Town Alexandria Civic Association stated, "From our vantage point the current controls on PRGS are inadequate and must not be continued in any administrative consent order."

She noted, "The dust inside our homes contained their pollution. We have soot, fly ash and coal ash in our bedrooms, our dining rooms, on window sills and porches. We watch the stacks like bishops waiting for a new Pope -- is it black smoke or white today? What does it mean?"

Harris said that after June 21 the consent order was not needed "for any purpose other than profit."

On the subject of stack merger, Harris, a former public member of the City of Philadelphia's Air Pollution Control Board, maintained that Mirant's plan was "probably illegal" and definitely "unfair." She said, "So-called dispersion techniques such as this were examined and thoroughly reject (by the Philadelphia Board) as outside the spirit and intent of the Clean Air Act."

Cale Jaffe, staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, told the Board, "The Harvard School of Public Health concluded that "the Potomac River plant is likely the single largest contributor of PM2.5 (small particulates) in Alexandria."

He stressed, "An independent analysis by Abt Associates, the same firm frequently employed by EPA, shows that pollution from Mirant's Potomac River power plant is responsible for 88 deaths each year."

Jaffe pointed out that it is well within Mirant's financial capabilities to improve its operations, with a final quarter net income of $1.86 billion in 2006. He also reminded them of former Governor Mark Warner's statement on September 21, 2005: "The bottom line is that you (Mirant) need to either fully comply with environmental laws and regulations or shut down. There is no middle ground here."

SPEAKING FOR the Sierra Club, and more locally the Mount Vernon Group of the Sierra Club, Ana Prados, Ph.D., told the Board that Mirant's proposed stack merger plan "is contrary to the interest of protecting public health and the environment in Northern Virginia" and "contrary to the requirements of the Clean Air Act and subsequent case law."

Prados said, "We do not believe that after June 21 there should be a continuation of the EPA's Administrative Consent Order or any other Consent order where predictive modeling is used as a basis for establishing pollutant emission limits."

She also challenged Mirant's use of Trona to reduce SO2, claiming that it leads to increasing fine particulate matter in the air. "The only acceptable solution that is protective of public health and the environment is a permanent retirement of the facility," Prados said.

It is now up to the triumvirate — Mirant, DEQ, and City of Alexandria — to try to reach a mutually agreeable Consent Order. If that fails the Board will act on April 10.

For historic perspective, that is the day after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered in 1865.

Mirant is headquartered in Atlanta, Ga.