Power Plant Still Battling to Stay Open

Mary Harris stands on the balcony of her Alexandria apartment, which overlooks Mirant's Potomac River power plant. Neighbors want the plant closed. (By David A. Fahrenthold -- The Washington Post)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2007

It is the Power Plant That Won't Die: a boxy hulk along the Potomac River that has been denounced, detested, challenged in court and even briefly shut down but still keeps on bringing in Appalachian coal and blowing out exhaust.

The Potomac River Generating Station, a 58-year-old facility located incongruously on Alexandria's scenic waterfront, will face its umpteenth challenge today before a Virginia permit board. Neighbors and city officials say the plant fouls the air with smog and soot. Its owner, Mirant, insists the plant is clean enough now and getting cleaner.

A closer look at the area's most controversial smokestacks, including interviews with environmentalists and federal regulators, shows they turn out far less pollution than larger power plants in the region. Compared with coal plants nationwide, it's only a middling polluter.

But it still has serious flaws, environmental advocates say. The plant lacks some modern cleanup technology, and its urban location means its exhaust can do more harm to public health than a similar plant in a rural area.

"It has a disproportionately high impact" in terms of causing asthma and other health problems, said Conrad Schneider of the advocacy group Clean Air Task Force. That is "primarily because it's located right in the middle of town," he said.

The plant opened in 1949, when the waterfront north of Old Town was an industrial strip. Since then, it's been surrounded by neighborhoods and high-rise condominiums as it kept on burning coal, up to 900,000 tons a year.

That makes it one of the area's last urban power plants. The two left in the District, at Buzzard Point in Southwest and along Benning Road in Northeast, operate only rarely and are scheduled to shut down in 2012. The others are scattered in the outer suburbs.

Neighbor Mary Harris said she notices a fine powder that settles on the windows and indoor furniture in her 14th-floor condominium.

"What they're putting out is ending up in our place," said Harris, wiping her palm on an end table near the door to her balcony recently. "You can just put your hand right here, and you'll get plenty of dust."

Mirant officials said the plant has nothing to apologize for. In the last few years, upgrades have reduced its emissions of sulfur dioxide, which irritates lungs, by 64 percent, and nitrous oxides, a precursor to smog, have dropped more than 24 percent, they said.

"It's not an old dirty plant," said Debra Raggio Bolton, an assistant general counsel for Atlanta-based Mirant. "It's very up to speed. It's environmentally sound."

Clean-air advocates said the picture is not that rosy. Because of its age, the plant lacks cleanup technology installed in newer facilities, they said.

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