Polluting power plant shuts down in Alexandria

Mirant suspends operations five days after Va. found facility posed health threat

August 25, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

An Atlanta-based utility took the rare step last night of shutting down a power plant serving the Washington area because it couldn't fix air pollution problems that Virginia warned were a threat to public health.

The Mirant Corp. told state officials it would close the 56-year-old, coal-fired Potomac River power plant in Alexandria, Va., five days after being ordered by authorities to immediately start meeting air quality standards, said Bill Hayden, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

A recent study found that the plant was emitting sulfur dioxide pollution at a rate up to 10 times the legal limit, Hayden said.

"We had told them that they need to bring the plant into compliance with air quality standards, and they apparently cannot do that," Hayden said. "They have informed us they are shutting down the plant at midnight."

Steve Arabia, a spokesman for Mirant, said he did not know the length of the shutdown. But he said the company plans to restart the plant once it finds a solution to the pollution problems.

"We said from the beginning that if we couldn't meet the [pollution] concerns, we would shut down the plant temporarily," Arabia said. "Now, we will try to find an acceptable solution."

A representative of the company that runs the regional energy grid predicted that blackouts would not immediately follow because several other power generators can cover for the 482 megawatts lost.

But Ray Dotter, spokesman for PJM Interconnection of Valley Forge, Pa., warned that the supply could grow thin when temperatures rise again. The company might have to order "rotating service interruptions" if a power line went out during a period of peak demand.

"It's not a panic situation for today. But for the long term, it's a matter of great concern," said Dotter, whose company is responsible for the power transmission grid serving 51 million people in a 13-state region from Illinois to Maryland to North Carolina. "It could affect customers on hot days when there is great demand. Now there is no backup."

The District of Columbia Public Service Commission ordered Pepco, the utility that takes the Potomac River plant's electricity and distributes it to the Washington area, to devise a backup plan for maintaining the city's power security. Pepco has five days to report back to the commission.

"It's not just mom and pop with their homes. It's also the White House - fairly large and important entities," said Sabrina Greene, the commission's deputy counsel.

Bruce Buckheit, head of air pollution enforcement for the Environmental Protection Agency from 1996 to 2003, said shutdowns of power plants because of pollution violations are rare. But power companies have in the past chosen to close old generators rather than pay millions to add equipment to meet Clean Air Act requirements.

Mirant, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2003, operates three plants in Maryland. The utility has applied to add new generators at two of the three plants, and might simply pick up the lost generation capacity through these expansions, said Eric Schaeffer, who served as chief of enforcement for the EPA from 1997 to 2002.

After violating Virginia's limits on nitrogen oxide pollution by more than 100 percent in 2003, Mirant agreed to enter into a consent decree to invest millions of dollars in filtration equipment at the Alexandria plant and others in Montgomery, Prince George's and Charles counties in Maryland.

But some of the leaseholders on Mirant's power plants balked at the plan, and it hasn't been approved by bankruptcy court.

Neighbors who live downwind from the Alexandria plant's unusually short smokestacks, including people living in a high rise a few hundred yards away, have been demanding that the state or city shut it down.

"We salute Mirant for taking the appropriate action in shutting the plant down to protect human health," said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, an environmental group.

But Brad Heavner, executive director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, accused Mirant of "playing politics" by threatening power shortages if the government starts cracking down on air pollution.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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