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Air Board Mirant Decision Favors City

The saga continues as the air gets heavier with summer humidity.

After nearly five hours of testimony on May 22 from speakers representing all perspectives, followed by a day-long meeting on May 23, the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board came down on the side of Alexandria City for the regulation of Mirant Corporation's Potomac River Generating Station (PRGS). Approving a short-term State Operating Permit, they started on the road to a comprehensive, long-term operating permit to control the broadest range of the plant's emissions.

Whether that decision will stand, and what will be the next move on the part of Mirant, remains to be seen. The short-term State Operating Permit by the Board sets strict limits on emissions of sulfur dioxide, consistent with National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).

The Board's decision also rejected Mirant's proposal for stack merger pending receipt of additional data and public input. That plan was part of the proposed Consent Order between the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Mirant as a way to reduce or eliminate so-called "downwash" on nearby structures from plant emissions.

The City opposed the stack merger concept because it was viewed as having the potential to allow "significantly increased levels of pollution from the plant." City officials called the Board's decision "the only common sense solution" to the Mirant controversy at this juncture of the debate.

"Only with a State Operating Permit, one that covers the critical air pollutants as well as toxic substances, will we have the certainty of knowing exactly what Mirant is pumping into the air and ground of our neighborhoods," said Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille following the Board's action.

"This invisible threat is one that scientists throughout the country have found to be an especially insidious threat to people. We simply cannot look the other way while Mirant pumps this substance into the lungs of our citizens," said Elizabeth Chimento, a citizen member of the Mirant Monitoring Group and one of two initial activists, along with Poul Hertel, who first alerted the city to the alleged potential health hazards of the PRGS's emissions.

Another city official urging the Board to take the same approach to Mirant's "outdated, coal fired, power plant" as other states have done was Alexandria Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper. "Either protect the public health by upgrading the generating units to modern standards or shut them down," she said.

IN HIS TESTIMONY before the Board, City Councilman Paul Smedberg stated, "The residents of Alexandria deserve a regulatory regime that immediately requires this plant to implement legitimate pollution control technology, to the fullest extent required by law."

City officials were joined in urging the Board to implement the short-term operating permit by U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D-8), a former Alexandria councilman and mayor.

In April, the Board chose not to accept an interim plan developed by Mirant and DEQ without input from the City. "In proposing not to accept Mirant's proposed consent decree it was clear that the Board wanted to hear more from the city and our concerned citizens before making a decision," Euille said. "We have always supported the idea of a comprehensive State Operating Permit for the Mirant coal-fired plant. With the strong support of our citizens, we have been successful in convincing the Board that a long-term, transparent approach is the best way to ensure the health and safety of our citizens. We look forward to working with all of the stakeholders in forging a positive, workable agreement."

HOWEVER, THE OTHER SHOE is yet to drop. On May 18, four days ahead of the May 22 public hearing at the Holiday Inn on Eisenhower Avenue, Mirant appeared to be preemptively laying the ground work for a counteroffensive if the Board's decision went against them. Their council, Timothy C. Hayes, of Hutton & Williams, Richmond, sent a letter dated May 18 to Gov. Timothy M Kaine. In the opening paragraph Hayes stated, "The Board's unwarranted actions have created the potential for regulatory gridlock, involving both state and federal agencies, jeopardizing the reliability of electric generating capacity serving downtown Washington, DC and the surrounding area."

Hayes also noted, "Consent orders ... are not subject to review or approval by the State Air Pollution Control Board before issuance by the Director (of DEQ). On contrast, the Board has authority to issue enforcement orders only in limited circumstances, namely following a formal hearing or declaration of emergency."

Hayes concluded by advising Kaine, "It is neither necessary nor prudent for the Board to disrupt DEQ's enforcement proceedings or to issue a permit prematurely."

Thus far, there has been no written response to that letter from Kaine.

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AS FOR THE VOTE on May 23 by the Air Pollution Control Board, that came down to a split decision. On the first vote, Board member John Hanson moved to support the Mirant/DEQ Consent order. His motion was defeated three to two.

That was followed by a motion put forth by Board member Bruce C. Buckheit, supported by Board members Vivian Thompson and Hullihen Williams Moore, calling for the enactment of a short-term State Operating Permit. It was approved three to two.

"We are disappointed that the Board did not follow the recommendation of DEQ, (pertaining to the consent order) the agency that has the expertise in this matter," said Debra Bolton, vice president and assistant general counsel, Regulatory, Governmental and External Affairs, Mirant Corporation.

"We thought it was somewhat confusing as to exactly what the Board did," she said. "However, we will continue to operate no matter what the Board says or whatever Pepco does in the future as to their new transmission lines. As long as there is a market for our power, we are not going away."

In addition to all the other voices, a new one was recently added to the continuing dialogue — that of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

In a letter to Monica Harvey, DEQ, Reverend Pat Watkins, staff director, Virginia Interfaith Power and Light, Environmental Policy Coordinator, stated, "I urge you to issue a comprehensive permit that will regulate all pollutants. It is incomprehensible, from a faith perspective, that God's people and God's creation suffer unnecessarily."

He also stated, "In the case of the Potomac River Generation Station (Mirant), God's creation (earth), including God's people have suffered. The sacrifice of human health, and especially human life itself, in the name of cheap electricity, is incomprehensible with the teachings of all faiths I know of. Mirant can do better."