Hope Is in the Air
Court’s EPA Ruling Might Make a Difference Here
On April 2, the Supreme Court made big news by announcing a ruling that faulted the Bush administration for refusing to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. That same day the court issued a less noticed ruling — in Environmental Defense et al. v. Duke Energy Corp. — that strengthens the prospect that dirty, old, coal-fired power plants, such as the one operated by Mirant Corp. in Alexandria, will be forced to clean up their acts at last, provided the government implements the decision.
As the ruling was announced, Alexandrians received a colorful brochure from a group called Bright Ideas Alexandria projecting a positive image of the 58-year-old Mirant plant.
The brochure states that the plant “supplies reliable and economical electricity for our community’s growing needs.” The truth is, Mirant’s Potomac River plant provides no electricity to Alexandria and, according to Mirant’s own testimony, has not done so since 1986. The electricity Mirant generates in Alexandria is generally sold on the PJM Northeast power grid, with some providing low-cost reserve power for the District — but not for long. Pepco has told the Energy Department that it won’t need backup from Mirant when new power lines are completed in June.
The brochure states that Mirant has “eliminated 99.7% of [its] total output of ash, dirt and soot.” The fact is, Mirant’s 2006 proposal to increase the height of its smokestacks stated that plant dust or particulate pollution is expected to increase more than six times over 2002 and 2003 levels. That’s more than 2,700 additional tons each year. Moreover, sulfur dioxide emissions would rise from 3,200 tons annually to more than 15,000 tons. According to a 2005 Mirant study, these changes would probably exceed national ambient air quality standards. Mirant has also added hundreds of tons of trona, a caustic powder that an Energy Department analysis found is likely to “double or triple the quantity of fly ash generated by the plant.” This fly ash is driven in trucks on Alexandria streets en route to a landfill in Prince George’s County, and it can eventually leach into the Chesapeake Bay.
Furthermore, 2005 Energy Department data indicate that the Mirant plant, as it operates now, could be expected to result annually in as many as 23 premature deaths, 31 heart attacks among adults and 440 asthma attacks among children. The analysis projects that emissions from the plant will cause the loss of some 2,488 workdays by affected people. Despite this grim scenario, the Bright Ideas brochure assures Alexandrians that Mirant wants to be part of the city’s “green future.” The fact is, Mirant wants to modify the plant by merging its smokestacks and to increase emissions above this year’s output, all the while contending that this change is too minor to require upgrading its pollution controls, as normally required under the Clean Air Act.
Here is where the Supreme Court’s less publicized April 2 ruling enters the picture. The ruling reaffirmed the requirements of the Clean Air Act for the use of “best available technology” at old power plants that make changes and increase emissions. Mirant’s Potomac River plant is such a plant.
The more widely heralded April 2 ruling is also relevant to Mirant’s operations. It determined that greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, are meant to be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act when they can potentially endanger health and welfare. The Energy Department calculates that the Mirant plant will produce slightly more CO in 2007 than it did in 2006, or about 2 million tons.
This is not our idea of a green future. A coal-fired power plant is not compatible with a residential and historic area such as ours. If this plant is to continue to operate, at the very least it should be required to meet the same emission standards as power plants built in the past 10 years.
The Mirant Corp. coal-fired power plant abuts the Mount Vernon bike trail along the Potomac River in Alexandria.