Mirant Proceeds With Barge Facility; Navy Concerned

Pile-driving equipment on the Potomac River is used to build a coal barge facility for the Morgantown power plant.
Pile-driving equipment on the Potomac River is used to build a coal barge facility for the Morgantown power plant. (Courtesy Of Cobb Neck Citizens Alliance)
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2007

Mirant Corp. began construction last week of a coal barge unloading facility along the Potomac River as part of a major upgrade at its Morgantown power plant in southern Charles County, a company spokeswoman said Friday.

The Maryland Public Service Commission has not decided whether to approve Mirant's application to build a third tower and a 25,000-square-foot waterfront facility to receive imported coal carried on large barges up the Potomac. But Mirant officials said the commission's approval in 2005 of a proposal for an unloading facility about one-tenth that size allowed the company to begin construction.

"We've begun basic construction of the coal barge facility based upon approval we got from the Maryland Public Service Commission, which did extensive analysis," said Felicia Browder, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based energy giant.

The start of construction comes amid mounting opposition to Mirant's expansion plans.

The U.S. Navy said in a March 8 letter that the planned unloading facility could affect military operations and security at the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Dahlgren, Va., just across the Potomac. The Maryland Heritage Areas Authority said in a letter a day later that the third tower might affect historical sites in its certified heritage area.

Meanwhile, local officials have been raising economic and environmental concerns. Hundreds of residents of Cobb Neck, the rural area near the plant that includes the planned golf community of Swan Point, have organized to oppose Mirant's plans.

The Morgantown plant opened in 1970, and Mirant says that erecting a third tower, called a wet scrubber, would lower the plant's chemical emissions to comply with Maryland's Healthy Air Act of 2006.

The plant, whose generators are fired by coal, receives coal carried on trains from the northern Appalachian Mountains. Mirant wants to begin purchasing coal from vendors in South America or Indonesia and bring it in on barges.

The Navy is concerned that the barge traffic and unloading facility could affect its operations, which include closing part of the Potomac when the base conducts firing practices.

"The construction and operation of an extended coal barge unloading platform could adversely impact the ability of [the Navy] to conduct mission activities in support of operational U.S. military forces," Capt. Judy L. Smith, the commanding officer at Dahlgren, wrote in a letter to the Maryland Public Service Commission.

Smith's letter requested that the commission extend the period for review of Mirant's proposal. She wrote that the Navy had just learned of Mirant's plan for the larger unloading facility in early March and needed time to assess its impact.

"We're just concerned that we can do our mission and not interfere with what Mirant needs to do with their coal facility," Navy spokesman Gary Wagner said.

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