State to Monitor Air Pollution From Old Plants
Program Could Become National Model, Environmentalist Says

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

CHESTER, Va., June 23 -- Virginia officials announced Tuesday a groundbreaking initiative to monitor pollution spewed from power plants and other facilities built before passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said the pilot program is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. He said the state Department of Environmental Quality will start an in-depth analysis of air quality near three aged plants and plans to survey 15 in all over the next five years.

State officials said the 15 were chosen based on size and proximity to population centers and not because of any suspected problems.

States are required under the law to monitor pollution and crack down on facilities that violate national ambient air quality standards. But only plants built or modified since 1970 are required to install top-notch pollution control equipment, state officials said.

Without proactive monitoring, it has been rare for state officials to find violations at older plants. They estimated it has occurred only a handful of times in the past decade. They said Virginia has 300 air pollution sources older than the federal law; some industrial plants contain more than one such source.

"In the past, if we became aware that someone was violating these national standards, then we would take action," Kaine (D) said. "But there has not been a proactive and systematic effort to go out and identify these grandfathered sources and then work with them to make sure they are complying with all appropriate federal laws."

State officials announced the initiative at Dominion Virginia Power's Chesterfield Power Station, south of Richmond, the company's largest plant in Virginia and one of the first three to be examined. Dominion officials said they plan to cooperate with the new monitoring and were confident it would show that equipment now installed ensures that their older plants are not violating air quality standards.

The other two facilities listed for immediate new monitoring are an American Electric Power plant in Giles County and a MeadWestvaco paper mill in Covington. Executives with those companies said they welcome the scrutiny and have been monitoring some of the data the state will track.

The state will check air quality near the facilities for emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulates.

Frank O'Donnell, president of the national group Clean Air Watch, called the initiative a positive step toward finding overlooked pollution. He said it could become a national model.

Frank Rambo, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, based in Charlottesville, said Kaine's successor -- to be elected in November -- should continue the initiative.

"Pollution that's emitted in Virginia largely stays in Virginia," Rambo said. "It's our own back yard, and we need to clean it up."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company