Mirant Corporation chose not to testify at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality's (DEQ) public hearing Monday night on the Potomac River Generating Station and Air Board members who arrived at the hearing were advised not to stay.
Following both detailed and emotional testimony by nearly 50 speakers — representing not only Alexandria residents and officials but also those expressing regional objections to the PRGS operations, before three DEQ officials — Mirant Senior Vice President Robert E. Driscoll walked to the microphone and announced that he saw no need to waste the DEQ representatives' time since Mirant had submitted their comments in writing prior to the hearing.
When asked for a copy of those comments, Driscoll stated that he did not have them with him. DEQ Director David Paylor verified that Mirant's comments had been sent to them but were not available at the Alexandria hearing, held at the Lee Center.
Following a half hour briefing on the intricacies and status of the proposed permit by Terry Darden, air permit manager for the Northern Regional Office of DEQ, the floor was opened to a host of speakers who not only criticized Mirant's operating procedures at PRGS but also DEQ's apparent "coziness" with Mirant and the lack of attendance by any member of the State Air Pollution Control Board.
"This permit has been put through the public advertising and hearing process that ends tonight," Darden said at the end of his briefing. It was also the last word he said throughout the two hours and 15 minutes of public testimony as he seemed to pay little or no attention to any of the speakers.
"This hearing is being held to gather comments on the State Operating Permit as required by state regulations. If a decision is made to issue the permit Mirant must still comply with all necessary requirements," said Thomas A. Faha, regional director, DEQ, who served as moderator for the hearing.
Prior to opening the public testimony, Faha informed the audience there would be no debate either with the DEQ representatives or with other speakers. Each speaker was limited to three minutes.
"THIS PLANT SHOULD be shut down. I remain troubled by how little we know about its operation," said U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D-8) who, as lead off speaker, set the tone for the testimony that followed.
"I find the proposed draft comprehensive operating permit seriously deficient. It defies common sense for the DEQ to accommodate this plant, given its past violations, its efforts to deceive the public, its attempts to antagonize or intimidate state officials, especially since it does not even provide power to Virginia," Moran said.
That was buttressed by State Senator Patricia "Patsy" Ticer (D-30). "People are not knocking down my door demanding more generation from this plant. Mirant has failed to keep pace with community health problems. We should not allow Mirant to pollute Alexandria," she said.
State Delegate David Englin (D-45) took particular except to the absence of any Air Board members. "I think it's outrageous that no member of the Air Board is here tonight. The Board has done all it can to protect us (Alexandria citizens) — DEQ has not," he said.
Their absence was explained by Paylor as "not standard procedure for Board members to attend public hearings." He also stated, "Their counsel advised them not to be at this hearing. We will report everything back to the Board and you will have an opportunity to consult them directly at a future hearing."
However, several Air Board members had arrived for Monday night's meeting but were advised to leave prior to its start. Why their presence, even as audience observers, was deemed undesirable was not explained by Paylor.
Making reference to Gov. Timothy Kaine's desire to eradicate the Air Board and two other pollution control boards in favor of one Environmental Board that would have only advisory power but no enforcement capabilities, Englin said, "I have drafted legislation that will prevent the eradication of the Air Board." He intends to introduce that legislation in the 2008 session of the General Assembly.
"This is an opportunity for DEQ to step up and prove it truly is the Department of Environmental Quality and not the Department of Energy. I agree with Congressman Moran, we don't know enough to allow Mirant to expand the use of trona. It's proposed stack merge will only result in more pollution," Englin said. Trona, a substance used to reduce sulfur dioxide emission, was introduced at the plant last year.
Expanding the objections to the plant’s operations beyond Alexandria's borders, Paul Ferguson, chair, Arlington County Board of Supervisors, told DEQ representatives, "We breath the same air as the folks in Alexandria. Mirant's proposed stack merge merely blows the air higher to pollute a larger area. Arlington County is unequivocally opposed to the stack merge. Anything that increases air pollution needs to have regional approval."
PERHAPS ONE OF THE MOST devastating pieces of testimony came from Attorney John Britton who serves as outside counsel to the City of Alexandria and several civic associations in the Mirant dispute. Citing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Britton noted, "EPA has found a way to calculate the price of human health and life."
According to scientific calculations, Britton maintained that the health costs for air pollution "from a modeled scenario" could go as high as $665 million over the next 30 years. "The high health and social costs reflect the unique status of the PRGS's location in a densely populated residential community and its significant adverse impact on a larger population than most other coal plants in Virginia," Britton said.
That was buttressed by Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille. "Our focus has always been to promote better air quality. We seek the strictest permit possible. We cannot ignore that Mirant is pumping pollutants into our air. We insist on transparency of everything that is submitted to DEQ and the Air Board," he said.
"Alexandria remains opposed to Mirant's proposed stack merge. The City continues to oppose stop gap measures that can only lead to detrimental public health consequences. Only with a comprehensive operating permit that covers all critical air pollutants and toxic gases will the residents of Alexandria enjoy a reasonable level of comfort," he said.
Euille's stance was substantiated by detailed testimony from William J. Skrabak, division chief for Environmental Quality, Alexandria Department of Transportation and Environmental Services.
He presented DEQ with a report outlining "crucial deficiencies" in the proposed draft permit "that must be addressed" prior to its issuance.
In addition to the comprehensive permit, both Euille and Alexandria City Councilman Paul Smedberg called for the establishment of an Local Air Pollution Control District. "Virginia regulations permit this," Smedberg said. They were supported in that suggestion by several other speakers during the evening.
"We have consistently been disappointed by DEQ's failure to
regulate Mirant. DEQ is too close to those they regulate," said Alexandria Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper.
SPEAKER AFTER SPEAKER informed the DEQ representatives of instances of health and environmental problems being endured by themselves, their spouses, their neighbors and their neighborhoods. "It's not fun spending 10 hours in the emergency room at the hospital only to have the doctor tell your spouse she need to stop smoking. Particularly, when she has never smoked a day in her life," said Poul Hertel, one of the original critics of the PRGS, along with Elizabeth Chimento, who began their investigation of the plant's emissions seven years ago.
"Any permit for this plant should require the best technology available. Other states require Mirant to operate by stricter standards than apply to this plant," said Crystal Waters, a Pitt Street resident living two blocks from the PRGS.
Speaking for the health of his grandchildren, whom he says have developed asthmatic conditions as a result of the PRGS operations, Peter Labovitz, CEO of Connection Newspapers, said, "I consider anyone who allows this plant to continue to damage people's health to be a criminal."
As stated by Faha at the outset there was no feedback from any of the three DEQ representative except Paylor's explanation for the absence of Air Board members. Following the last speaker, he announced a transcript would be produced and declared the public hearing concluded.