Mirant to face suit to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide

Environmental groups say Montgomery County plant produces illegal amounts

July 22, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and three other environmental groups notified Mirant power company yesterday that they plan to sue to stop what they described as illegal amounts of nitrogen oxide pollution pouring from a power plant in Montgomery County.

The air pollution from the Dickerson plant -- the equivalent of what 40,000 sport utility vehicles would spew in a year -- helps create low-oxygen "dead zones" in the bay and triggers asthma attacks and premature deaths, according to the foundation, which was joined in the legal action by the Environmental Integrity Project and Chesapeake Climate Action Network and the Maryland Public Interest Research Group.

"Every pound of pollution has a cost, increasing the dead zone and making large portions of the Chesapeake Bay uninhabitable for fish and shellfish," said Kim Coble, the foundation's Maryland executive director.

After being hit with a violation notice by Virginia for a plant in Alexandria, Atlanta-based Mirant signed a consent agreement in September promising to install filtration equipment to reduce nitrogen emissions by two-thirds at that plant and three more in Maryland.

But the company is in bankruptcy, and some of the leaseholders on Mirant power plants objected to the agreement, so the courts have not yet approved it, said Steve Arabia, spokesman for Mirant.

Despite this lack of approval, the company is moving ahead with the construction of more than $100 million in nitrogen-pollution control equipment at the plants it owns in Montgomery, Charles and Prince George's counties and Alexandria, Va., Arabia said.

"This goes under the heading of `no good deed goes unpunished,'" Arabia said. "I can't believe they are complaining about nitrogen emissions, with all the improvements we are making in that area."

Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former top enforcement officer at the Environmental Protection Agency, said it's hard to believe Mirant is serious about its public proclamations to reduce pollution if it can't meet basic permit requirements at the Dickerson plant.

Schaefer said that his group filed a public information request with the Maryland Department of the Environment in April and received documents showing that the Dickerson plant was exceeding its nitrogen air-pollution limits by 35 percent to 40 percent during the winter.

The company installed pollution-control equipment in 2003 at the Dickerson plant but hasn't been running it at full capacity in winter, Schaefer said.

Arabia said the company runs the system full bore only in the summer, because that's when nitrogen pollution is most likely to contribute to serious ozone problems.

"We are just asking them to drive the speed limit, to obey the limits in their permit," Schaefer said. "The plant already has a system to control nitrogen oxide emissions, they just need to run it in the winter." The notice filed yesterday warns Mirant that the groups might file a lawsuit in federal court within 60 days if there is no settlement.

The system at the Dickerson plant cost $12 million to install and cuts nitrogen emissions by 30 percent to 40 percent when it is running, the company said.

Julie Oberg, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the agency would not comment on the claims because it didn't want to take sides in the lawsuit.

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