In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I live next door to the Mirant power plant in Alexandria, which was forced to close temporarily last week [Metro, Aug. 25]. At the risk that neighbors will pump chloroform under my door, I also must say that I am not convinced that Mirant is getting a fair shake.
The plant closed Wednesday night after it was unable to satisfy the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality's concerns about pollution. But the state based its concerns on a computer model of a worst-case scenario -- i.e., if all the plant's units operate at maximum output and produced maximum emissions, then, in certain weather conditions, certain pollutants could exceed the national ambient air quality standards. That's a lot of "ifs."
The plant has not been accused of actually emitting any of the 189 air pollutants the Environmental Protection Agency deems hazardous. The pollutants at issue are garden-variety emissions such as sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide -- all of which occur naturally in volcanoes, sandstorms, forest fires, marshes, wind-blown dust, pollen, etc.
Moreover, the air quality standards are set far below the levels necessary to protect human health. "Man can tolerate exposure to sulfur dioxide up to 25 parts per million with no ill effects," according to Lawrence Hinkle of Cornell University Medical School. Virginia's permissible level of sulfur dioxide is 0.030 parts per million -- or 850 times less than the amount considered dangerous.
When such senseless reductions were proposed in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, seven leading economists -- including three Nobel laureates -- tried to persuade President George H.W. Bush to reject the "unduly stringent and extremely costly provision." But trying to inject reason into environmental debate is political suicide.
The Mirant plant is accused of exceeding the limit on particulate matter -- another naturally occurring phenomenon. (Without particles in the atmosphere, raindrops would have nothing to form around.) Although the coal dust on window sills is bothersome, has anyone quantified it as a health risk?
Large airborne particles such as coal dust usually get trapped in the nose or throat and are expelled before reaching deep-lung tissue. Particles small enough to penetrate lung tissue are in fumes, smoke and aerosols. Try to keep a straight face while people dragging on cigarettes complain that the power plant is endangering their health.
As for nitrogen dioxide, the World Health Organization says concentrations in excess of the one part per million necessary to induce changes in the pulmonary function of healthy adults "almost never occur in ambient air." The main sources of exposure are cigarette smoke and gas-fired appliances. Even the EPA concedes that low-level exposures may be harmful only to individuals "with pre-existing respiratory illnesses."
So unless you're an elderly asthmatic running rings around the power plant while breathing through your mouth, odds are that the facility poses no threat to you.
Not one of the neighbors protesting the power plant's presence claims to have developed a chronic cough or black lung. So in the absence of data that anyone's health has been harmed, my suspicion is that many of the neighbors object to the plant on aesthetic grounds. The plant is noisy and ugly, and if it were gone, property values would rise. But does that justify putting a productive facility out of business and its employees out of work?
The Alexandria plant was built in 1949, meaning just about everyone living in the surrounding area knew about its presence when they moved there. Anyone who finds the plant to be a nuisance is free to move away. But almost no one does -- indeed, property values in the area are soaring. Are complaints about the plant's polluting just a smokescreen for a power grab?