Longtime Foes Face Off Over Mirant Power Plant

Bruce Buckheit, left, of the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board says energy companies could do more to clean up their plants but don't want to spend the money to do it. Jeffrey R. Holmstead says businesses such as Mirant have to be defended against environmental rules that impose undue financial hardship. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

On one side is the Environmental Protection Agency's former top political appointee overseeing the Bush administration's pollution-control policy on such issues as global warming, ozone depletion and coal-fired plants.

On the other is a 30-year EPA veteran who helped coordinate enforcement efforts against coal-fired plants. He left the federal government in 2003, saying the Bush administration had engaged in a "wholly unprecedented effort to undercut enforcement of the Clean Air Act."

These two longtime adversaries on the federal level are squaring off again, this time over the Mirant power plant in Alexandria, a coal-fired power generation plant that critics say is spewing pollution. The clash between lawyers Jeffrey R. Holmstead of Gaithersburg and Bruce Buckheit of Fairfax County is a typical Washington confrontation: high-profile lawyers, former federal officials, sharply contrasting ideologies.

"It's certainly serendipitous that Buckheit would end up going up against Holmstead, who was his nemesis," said U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D), whose district includes Mirant. "It's a battle of wills."

Atlanta-based Mirant, which is fighting to keep its 57-year-old plant to help serve Pepco customers in the District and Maryland, has hired Holmstead, whose firm is headed by presidential aspirant Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Facing him as a citizen-regulator is Buckheit, a member of the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board. The five-member citizen board has placed pressure on the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality by requiring the Alexandria plant to undergo additional expensive environmental reviews. Mirant has sued the board over restrictions it has placed on sulfur dioxide emissions from the plant.

Throughout their careers, Holmstead and Buckheit have been diametrically at odds. Holmstead says he believes businesses have to be defended against environmental rules that impose undue financial hardship. Buckheit says many energy companies could do more to clean up their power plants but don't want to spend the money to do it.

"We get along personally fine, but we are poles apart on policy issues," said Buckheit, 59.

Holmstead, 47, said: "I like Bruce, and he likes me, but we don't always see eye to eye on the issues."

Alexandria officials unanimously oppose the plant's existence and have engaged in a five-year campaign to force the firm to install expensive new pollution control devices or shut down. The most obvious solution to the problem, building tall stacks that could shoot the pollution higher into the sky so it disperses farther, isn't possible because the power plant is just south of Reagan National Airport, and tall structures there would pose a threat to jet safety. Instead, the company is proposing to merge its five stacks into two stacks that would be taller, but not as tall as some critics would like.

Federal officials consider the power plant crucial to the region's energy grid at a time of growing power demands, although two new power lines have been installed by Pepco that make the Alexandria facility less essential than it once was.

Mirant officials have said that they are seeking to be a "good neighbor" to Alexandria and that the plant follows the rules and regulations imposed on it by state and federal regulators. They said they have made many upgrades to pollution controls over the years.

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