Pressured by regulators, the owner of four major power plants in the Washington area announced plans yesterday for cutting air pollution linked to urban smog and "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay.
The Mid-Atlantic branch of Atlanta-based Mirant Corp. filed a consent decree in U.S. District Court in Alexandria to avoid a threatened Virginia lawsuit for exceeding the state limit on nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 100 percent in the summer of 2003 at its coal-burning plant in Alexandria.
During negotiations with Virginia over that violation, Mirant agreed to pay a $500,000 penalty and to install modern pollution-control equipment by 2010 on all its plants - including Chalk Point in southern Prince George's County, Morgantown in Charles County and Dickerson in Montgomery County, as well as Potomac River in Alexandria.
The company didn't reveal the cost of the improvements, but sources close to the negotiations said the equipment could cost more than $100 million.
Chalk Point, the largest power generator in Maryland, was featured yesterday in an article in The Sun, which described how federal policy changes allowed chronic air pollution to continue there.
While the Clinton administration used lawsuits to force cleanups, the Bush White House emphasizes a market-based, pollution credit-trading system that allows utilities to buy the right to exceed pollution limits, with money going to reward cleaner plants elsewhere.
But Virginia refused to allow Mirant to buy credits to solve pollution problems at the Alexandria plant last year and threatened litigation, said Bill Hayden, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
Mirant faced penalties of up to $25,000 a day for violating its state permit last year.
"We didn't believe it was appropriate for Mirant to simply trade emissions with plants outside the area, because you could be improving air quality in California and it wouldn't be helping us here in Virginia and the region," Hayden said.
"This agreement should have a very beneficial effect on not only air quality in the region, but also on the Chesapeake Bay, because are talking about significantly reducing the nitrogen pollution falling into the bay and its tributaries," he said.
Millions in equipment
Mirant must reduce annual emissions at all four plants by almost two-thirds - from 45,000 tons a year to 16,000 tons by 2010, under the agreement. The company must install at least $1 million in equipment at the Alexandria plant to reduce by 47 tons annually the soot-like particles escaping from its coal piles, ash silos, trucks and other equipment. And the three Maryland plants will also be required to meet annual nitrogen pollution limits for the first time.
"This puts us in a position now where we have really good pollution controls on our plants in Maryland, and we are very pleased," said Thomas C. Snyder, director of air programs at the Maryland Department of the Environment, which joined Virginia and federal officials in negotiating the final deal.
Beth McGee, senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, praised the agreement as a step that could reduce a significant source of bay pollution. About 11 percent of the nitrogen pollution in the bay comes from the smokestacks of power plants. An overabundance of nitrogen spurs the growth of algae, which consume so much dissolved oxygen that it creates "dead zones" in which fish, crabs and oysters cannot live, McGee said.
"From an air pollution perspective, this is huge," McGee said. "But it is also a big step in the right direction for the bay, where there should be improvements in water quality."
Steve Arabia, a Mirant spokesman, said the planned pollution control improvements must still be approved by a federal bankruptcy court in Fort Worth, Texas, because the firm filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year.
The company plans to install state-of-the-art systems to reduce nitrogen pollution at its Chalk Point and Alexandria plants by next May, he said, and it will build similar systems for two coal-fired boilers at its Morgantown plant by May 2008.
Tom Skinner, acting assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, described the agreement as a cooperative enforcement effort among Virginia, the federal government and Maryland.
But Eric Schaeffer, EPA's former enforcement chief, said the agreement proves that states can successfully use the threat of litigation to force utilities to reduce pollution even if EPA is reluctant to file lawsuits.
In 2002, EPA was talking to Mirant about the installation of pollution controls, using a provision of the federal Clean Air Act called "new source review," which requires old power plants to install modern pollution controls whenever they make significant improvements, Schaeffer said. But those talks fell apart last fall when the Bush administration weakened the law's requirements, he said.
"Virginia is a good example of how states can take up the slack if the EPA backs off," said Schaeffer, who is now an environmental activist.
"States don't have to be victims."