City Council puts Mirant on defensive


The Alexandria City Council held its last legislative meeting before summer recess and made decisions about a smoking ban in restaurants, outdoor dining on King Street and transferring funds to pay for budget over-runs in the City Attorneys Office and the Department of Human Services. Also, there was the ongoing issue of Mirants Potomac River Generating Station.

Last week, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality notified Mayor Bill Euille and Vice Mayor Redella S. Del Pepper that the agency planned to allow Mirant to merge its two smoke stacks into one because VEDEQ had determined that no permit was required for this internal engineering change.

This came on the heels of a decision by Virginias Air Pollution Control Board, which ordered VDQ to issue an operating permit to Mirant severely restricting sulfur dioxide emissions at the coal-fired power plant and to carefully monitor all other compliance with environmental regulations.

I couldnt believe it, Pepper said. I reminded the director that it was his job to protect the citizens of Alexandria, a fact that he seems to have forgotten. I also expressed my concern that sometimes regulators get too close to the very facilities they are supposed to be monitoring.

VDEQ based its decision on an independent engineering report, by someone who has a history of favoring coal-fired power plants, said City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa. We had a meeting with a representative from the Governors staff, VDEQ and others in Richmond on Monday and expressed our concern about the validity of this report, about VDEQs lack of adherence to the Air Boards decision and about allowing the stack merger without public input. After the meeting, VDEQ informed us that they would study the matter further and would inform us of their decision at some later date. They didnt give a timeframe.

Mirant proposed the stack merger several months ago, saying that it would actually improve environmental quality at the Plant. It would simply disperse pollutants over a wider area and even increase the level of sulfur dioxide that actually goes into the air, said Councilman Paul Smedberg, who, along with Pepper, co-chairs the citys Mirant Monitoring Group.

On another front, Pessoa announced that the city has joined in the suit that Mirant filed against the Air Board as an Intervener on the side of the Air Board. This case is making its way through Circuit Court in Richmond. The two other suits in which the city was engaged with Mirant have been settled in Mirants favor and the city has not yet decided whether to appeal either of those.

These court cases come with a high price. Council transferred $1.5 million to the City Attorneys office to pay for outside counsel engaged to handle matters related to Mirant and a dispute with developer LCOR over taxes owed to the city related to the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office complex. Mirant court cases account for $1.1 million of the needed funds. This does not include funds spent on these cases over the past three years or funds needed for future court actions.

I do hope we carefully consider what court actions we undertake in the future because there is a high price tag, said Councilman Tim Lovain after the transfer was unanimously approved.

Euille also expressed concern about the amount of the transfers. We should be kept apprised of these issues on a regular basis. Its not that we werent anticipating spending the money but when transfers of this size are required just after going through a budget process, it is of concern, he said.
Restaurant smoking ban
Council passed an ordinance, which, if reenacted next year, will ban smoking in all restaurants in Alexandria on July 1, 2008. The ordinance still includes a five-year grace period for those businesses that have invested in air filtering systems and city zoning law requires a seven year period for those restaurants that chose not co comply to be declared nonconforming.

Councilman Rob Krupicka added another clause that requires consultation with third parties regarding the legality of the ban. I just want us to talk to city attorneys and other folks in other jurisdictions to see what they think about our using zoning law to affect this ban, he said.

The city will include smoking ban legislation in the 2008 legislative packet that will go to the Virginia General Assembly in January. We still hope that they will do the right thing and this ordinance will never take effect, Euille said.
Outdoor dining on King Street
Outdoor dining will continue on King Street but with some changes. First, chairs and tables must be removed from the street on Nov. 15, and cannot reappear until April 1. This really allows for streets to be clear in time for holiday shoppers, Smedberg said. Some of the businesses have expressed concern about chairs and tables blocking their doorways.

Also, Planning Department staff has been asked to better define bright colors. I have seen some of the chairs that we are not allowing and I think the colors are fine, Smedberg said. I think this is too subjective.

Restaurants that are using bar stools and high tables may continue to do so for the remainder of this year but must replace them by April, 2008. I just dont think this is the atmosphere we want to portray on King Street, Smedberg said.

Finally, curbside dining will still be allowed. If we dont permit this, some restaurants will have no space for outdoor dining, Krupicka said.

Council is in recess until Sept. 11.