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.
"This plant has done everything it is supposed to do to comply with the environmental laws, but the neighbors want to shut it down," Holmstead said. "A very affluent community has built up around the plant, and they don't like it in their midst."
Nearby residents, however, have testified that they suffer from burning eyes, a dry cough, difficulty breathing and asthma, health conditions they say are caused by airborne dust-like pollution emitted by the plant.
The Clean Air Act of 1970 forced new power plants to install costly pollution-control measures, but many power plants such as the one in Alexandria were grandfathered in when utility companies said that it would be too expensive to modernize them and that they would soon be shut down and replaced. Most power companies then were regulated by local governments and could authorize big capital expenditures to build new facilities.
In the 1990s, however, the District and many states, including Maryland and Virginia, deregulated the utilities industry. In 2000, Pepco sold four power plants it had owned and operated, including the Potomac River facility, to Mirant. Environmental regulators were expected to make sure these power plants met federal pollution-control standards.
Instead, however, the older plants have remained in existence, becoming more valuable to their private-sector owners because they are cheaper to operate than facilities with tougher environmental controls. The Bush administration, meanwhile, has relaxed rules to permit companies to avoid some costly pollution remediation.
Alexandria officials have endorsed the efforts of the Air Pollution Control Board in holding Mirant to a heightened scrutiny. They believe the board members' efforts are being undermined by the state administrative agency in which it is housed, the Department of Environmental Quality.
"I feel the regulators, the DEQ, are far too close to those they are regulating: Mirant," said Alexandria Vice Mayor Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D). "We are the people they are supposed to be protecting, not the polluting plant. They are supposed to protect the residents of Alexandria."
DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden said the criticism is unfair.
"DEQ works very hard to protect people's health and the environment, and we need to do it within the law and the regulations," he said. "All of our actions on Mirant have always focused on what will protect people's health."
Against this backdrop, the former adversaries in the federal arena, Holmstead and Buckheit, are facing each other across a conference table once again. The bonhomie between the men was strained at a recent hearing.
When Holmstead introduced himself, Buckheit pointedly called him Jeff. So Holmstead asked if he could call him Bruce.
"You can call me Your Honor," Buckheit said, drawing laughter from the crowd. At another point, Holmstead anticipated a question from Buckheit, saying he expected it because Buckheit is a "very clever guy."
Mirant spokesman David Barney said the company hired Holmstead because he is an "industry expert" with "great knowledge" about coal-fired plants.
Buckheit said, "Jeff knows the Clean Air Act and still has contacts within the Bush administration, if they want the EPA to help them."
"Holmstead," Moran said, "has devoted his life to enabling utilities to avoid air pollution regulation. Buckheit has spent his career trying to enforce regulation to bring about clean air."