Vice President Gore didn't travel far on Earth Day in April when he needed some dramatic scenery for a policy speech on air pollution at national parks and forests.
Gore went to Shenandoah National Park, which its staff says is suffering from a host of ills caused by air pollution drifting from West Virginia and the Washington area. Federal officials now worry that the conditions Gore addressed -- haze and high levels of ozone concentrations -- could be exacerbated by a new natural-gas-burning power plant in southern Fauquier County.
In the last two weeks, the National Park Service has sent the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality two letters asking state regulators to review just what the new Virginia Power plant in Remington -- and some other facilities that may be in the works nearby -- would do to the park and other nearby federal lands, including the Manassas National Battlefield Park.
The National Park Service is one of several groups that have asked the DEQ to take special care in reviewing Virginia Power's pending air permit application for the facility, which would be less than 40 miles from Shenandoah National Park.
The Metropolitan Washington Air Quality Committee, a group comprising elected officials from 21 localities around Washington, excluding Fauquier County, last week sent state regulators a letter asking that the public comment period on Virginia Power's permit application be extended.
Committee members said they were "disappointed" that they were notified only last month about the project, even though it has been in the works for more than a year.
Soon afterward, the state extended the comment period 15 days to June 11.
Virginia Power cannot begin construction on the plant until the air permit is issued, although it has begun some preliminary work at the site, 505 acres on Route 655. Other permits will be required for the plant to begin operation.
The delay in ending the comment period does not mean that the state is less likely to grant the permit for the four-turbine plant, which would generate as much as 750-megawatts during peak hours of electricity use. But it does spotlight concerns over how the state judges the broader effects of air pollution.
The National Park Service, in its letter, asked the DEQ to "evaluate the cumulative impacts of additional emission sources such as these in the area around the park." Parks officials are hoping that the state will use its broader authority to review the state "implementation plan," an act that could result in new regulations in the region.
A draft air permit, and a special exception permit issued by the Fauquier Board of Supervisors last October, would allow the plant to send 249 tons of nitrogen oxides into the air each year. If the utility had applied for one additional ton, it would have had to meet more stringent requirements, including a broader review of its effects on the region's air.
Don Shepherd, a member of the park service's Denver-based Air Resources Division, said that although that one ton may be enough to remove Virginia Power from stricter environmental controls, it may not mean much to the trees of Shenandoah National Park.
The one ton "is a regulatory artifice," Shepherd said. The total tonnage from the plant "is major from an environmental standpoint. From a regulatory one, it's not.
"Shenandoah is one of the parks that has some of the highest levels of air pollution in the country," Shepherd said. "Shenandoah is already suffering adverse impact on visibility in the park. The types of emissions from this plant contribute to the formation of very fine particles that can aggravate conditions that you see in the park."
DEQ officials said they have followed the letter of the law when it comes to limits. "I guess you have to have a starting place and a stopping place somewhere," said John Daniel, director of the department's air quality program.
And Virginia Power spokesman Dan Genest said company officials "understand the park service's concern about wanting to protect the integrity of Shenandoah National Park, but we have followed all the rules and guidelines in applying for this."
Christi Gordon, the air program manager at the park, said existing research has demonstrated that defoliation in the park has been caused by high levels of ozone. Ozone is more closely associated with sulfate emissions from coal-burning plants, though the nitrogen oxides that a natural-gas-burning plant emits are known to contribute to those conditions, she said.
Because the park already is under considerable strain, Shepherd said any new air pollution could have a disproportionate effect. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative also is considering building a "peak" plant in Fauquier.
"When you already have a problem, every little bit can only make the problem worse," he said.