By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
Alexandria officials blasted the Mirant power plant on the city's waterfront yesterday, questioned an experimental process plant operators say will cut pollution and vowed to fight until the facility is closed for good.
The coal-fired plant, which closed in August after violating air quality standards, was ordered to partially reopen in December as a needed backup to the District's power supply. Operators have been trying for months to reduce pollution and reopen completely. Recently, they announced some success with injecting a baking soda-like substance into boiler exhaust, cutting one pollutant by as much as 80 percent.
But city officials remain skeptical, and Mayor William D. Euille (D) vowed yesterday that "this plant must close, and will close."
For more than half a century, the power plant and its handful of 214-foot smokestacks have occupied a prominent site in north Old Town, providing residents with what they call an eyesore and a health concern. Alexandrians nearby blame a host of complaints on Mirant -- including cars covered in fine soot and respiratory problems.
But federal authorities call the plant important to the area. When running all five of its generators, the facility provides electricity to hundreds of thousands of customers in the District and Maryland. It does not serve Virginia.
Searching for a way to meet clean air standards and reopen the Potomac River plant, Mirant began injecting a sodium carbonate substance called trona into its boiler exhaust, predicting it would cut harmful sulfur dioxide emissions. It has cut them, say plant officials, by 80 percent -- largely helping the facility to comply with federal and state mandates.
Officials with Mirant said yesterday that they hope to expand the new process and have the entire plant up and running next year.
"There are national interests to be served here," said S. Linn Williams, executive vice president and general counsel for Mirant. "If this is a power plant that complies with environmental law, it has every right to run."
But yesterday, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), joined by city officials and activists, gathered outside the plant and questioned Mirant's cleanup claims. At issue, according to Moran, is the company's secrecy about its experiment with trona.
Waving a copy of the report made available to the city with nearly every line blacked out, he said Mirant is asking for trust that it does not deserve.
"We're not dealing with the CIA or the Defense Department here," Moran said, holding the report aloft. "Seventeen of 21 pages redacted is an insult. What can you tell from this? All you can tell is that they're hiding something."
Company officials have made a full copy of their trona report available to state and federal authorities, but they have insisted that some information be withheld from the public -- including Alexandria officials -- claiming their techniques are unique and, if proven successful, could be patented.
Yesterday, Mirant officials accused the city, which had tried to withdraw its use permits, of trying to block legitimate pollution control efforts.
"If they really wanted to reduce emissions, they'd be helping us," Williams said. "But they don't care about emissions. They want the plant gone. It's tacky. They don't want to look at it. But that's not how it works."
Officials with Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality said they are examining the data provided by Mirant and will continue to monitor the plant. "We do know they can make some improvement with trona and low-sulfur coal and other steps they're looking at," said DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden. "What we don't know is how much of an improvement it will be. That's where we are, waiting to see how effective their steps will be as they resume operations."
Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration approved Mirant's request to raise the height of its stacks by 50 feet to dilute the amount of pollution that filters earthward. Mirant officials said that adjustment, which could cost tens of millions of dollars, is being "strongly considered."
"We'll seek to do whatever is necessary," Williams said. "That's what we want to do. That's what we thought everyone wanted us to do."
City officials might have felt that way at one time but no longer. They said yesterday they simply want the plant shuttered.
"Whether it's trona or some other process [that's used], the risk to citizens should not continue," Euille said.
"We're fighting them on every level we can," said Vice Mayor Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D). "We don't want them here."