An Aug. 23 Metro article about air quality issues at the Mirant Corp. power plant in Alexandria misidentified the company that manages the flow of electricity over transmission lines in 13 states and the District. It is PJM Interconnection, not PJM Interconnected. (Published 8/25/2005)

The Mirant Corp. power plant in Alexandria, which provides electricity to homes in the District and Maryland, is in violation of national air quality standards and has been ordered by Virginia officials to take immediate steps to reduce pollution. Mirant officials said they will shut down the plant by tomorrow night if they can't satisfy the state's demand.

The directive was issued Friday night by the Department of Environmental Quality after reviewing the results of an analysis that showed that some pollutants found in the vicinity of the coal-fired power plant are at times considerably higher than what national standards allow.

"People should be concerned about this information," said Bill Hayden, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality. "That's why we want to have steps taken immediately to fix it."

Mirant officials responded Sunday night by reducing the output of all five of its boilers from a maximum output of 482 megawatts of electricity to 175 megawatts and said they plan to meet with state officials tomorrow afternoon to discuss plans to resolve air-quality issues. Still, Mirant officials said they will temporarily shut the plant no later than midnight tomorrow if no acceptable short-term solution is agreed on.

"We acted very quickly in this matter" to address the public health concern, said Lisa D. Johnson, Mirant's regional president.

The plant, which began operation in 1949, supplies enough electricity to the region's power grid to serve about 400,000 homes in the District and Maryland. It does not serve Virginia. Officials with PJM Interconnected, which manages the flow of electricity over transmission lines in 13 states and the District, said yesterday that a shutdown would not affect the area's power supply because it has alternative electricity sources.

"Barring some unforeseen circumstance, we'll be able to manage," said Terry Williamson, spokesman for PJM.

Atlanta-based Mirant Corp., which filed for bankruptcy in 2003, operates four plants in the area, including three in Maryland -- in Montgomery, Prince George's and Charles counties.

Neighbors of the Alexandria plant, on the banks of the Potomac in the northern end of the city, have complained for years about what they believed to be high levels of mercury, contaminants in the air and water, and of a sooty substance that they say covers surfaces around their homes and gardens.

In 2001, longtime residents decided to investigate, eventually submitting a thick report to the city that concluded that the plant was a potential danger. It cited several studies showing that a significant portion of the soot collected in the neighborhood was directly associated with Mirant. Last year, the City Council revoked a 12-year-old ordinance that allowed the plant to operate indefinitely, as well as two special-use permits, making the plant in violation of zoning and giving Mirant seven years to close shop.

In February, Mirant sued the city to stop the zoning changes. Mirant participated in the pollution study as part of a 2004 settlement agreement relating to alleged ozone violations at the Alexandria plant.

The report, based on data collected from 2000 to 2004, looks at worst-case scenarios involving pollution, weather and operational capacity. Researchers found that under certain conditions, levels of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particles in the vicinity of the plant are higher than the national ambient air quality standards allow.

For example, over a 24-hour period, the health-based limit for sulfur dioxide exposure is 365 micrograms per cubic meter. The study says the plant could release more than 5,000 micrograms per cubic meter within a heavily populated half-mile radius.

Johnson said Mirant will consider switching to a different type of coal that potentially has a lower sulfur content or to an injection technology that uses minerals to reduce sulfur output. Officials said they might also consider increasing the height of their smokestacks to better allow pollutants to dissipate.

"We don't have to shut down if the solution we propose is satisfactory to all the parties involved," Johnson said. "That remains to be seen."