Citizens miffed over walkout


Virginias Air Pollution Control Board held a public hearing on a proposed comprehensive operating permit for Mirants Potomac River Generating Station and no Board members attended. Now, the Board will hold another meeting, with the plant once again on the agenda, and this time only Board members will attend. Members of the Alexandria City Council and citizen activists who would like to see the plant closed want to know whats going on.

We understood that at least three Air Board members would attend last weeks public hearing to listen to the comments, said Alexandria City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa at this weeks City Council meeting. Then, two members came to the Lee Center before the meeting and left. The Department of Environmental Quality staff told some members of the public who were at the meeting to testify that the Board members had been advised by counsel to leave.

Elizabeth Chimento is one of the leading public activists who has been working hard to get the plant closed or to comply with strict environmental standards. It appears that the Assistant Attorney General who represents the Air Board advised the members not to come because if three of them arrived, they would have a quorum and could make a decision. They clearly didnt want that to happen, Chimento said.

The Mirant plant has been operating without a state permit since July. In October, the Air Board discussed the comprehensive operating permit and the possibility of issuing a permit to allow Mirant to merge its five stacks into two stacks, a move that Alexandria opposes.

This stack merger would allow Mirant to exceed environmental limits on emissions and would pollute other jurisdictions. That is not good for anyone except the owners of the plant, said Alexandria City Council Member Paul Smedberg, who co-chairs the Mirant Monitoring Group along with Vice Mayor Redella S. Del Pepper. After last weeks public hearing, we understood that the Air Board would discuss the comprehensive operating permit at its January meeting.

On Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, however, Chimento saw a notice from the Air Board that Mirant had been added to the Nov. 30, Board meeting, which will be held in Newport News. Chimento spoke to Rick Weeks, assistant director of VDEQ on Monday of this week and asked that the Mirant matter be deferred until the January Board meeting and that that meeting be held in either Alexandria or Richmond to allow for Alexandrians to attend. Weeks spoke to VDEQ director David Paylor on Tuesday and informed Chimento that Paylor had declined to remove the Mirant matter from the Boards Nov. 30 agenda.

At this point, we arent certain what exactly they are going to discuss, Chimento said.

Pessoa explained the matter further to Council. At the October meeting, the Board discussed the possibility of issuing a permit that would allow the stack merger but require Mirant to keep emissions below National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Mirant has said this is not possible.

The City has asked VDEQ to evaluate when New Source Review would be triggered and we havent really gotten a good answer to this request. It is unclear exactly what is going to happen at Fridays meeting but I will be there along with members of the Transportation and Environmental Services staff to monitor the situation, Pessoa said.

Mirant has made changes to the plant, such as installing trona into the stacks to limit emissions. The issue with that is we dont know what kinds of emissions this is causing, Chimento said. We really would have preferred that Mirant either convert the plant to natural gas, install the most technologically up-to-date environmental controls such as new bag houses or close the plant. Its really a public health issue.

Mirant has contended that their proposed internal merge will reduce emissions by dispersing those emissions over a wider area while not increasing the limits that are currently imposed by NAAQS and VDEQ regulations. In 2001, the company rejected the proposal to install new bag house technology because of the expense. The plant needs a comprehensive operating permit but Mirant does not believe that the stack merger requires a permit. The Air Board will discuss these matters on Friday.

Council sets budget targets
The Alexandria City Council has instructed City Manager Jim Hartmann to prepare a proposed FY 2008 operating budget that includes a maximum of five percent budget growth over this year. This target or guidance will not include any Market Rate Adjustment or Cost of Living Adjustment. Also, the five percent growth should not rely on any real estate tax rate increase but should hold the rate at 83 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Council members Paul Smedberg and Justin Wilson offered an amendment to the proposal, which would have included any MRA as part of the target. I just believe that it is disingenuous for us to set a target and then exclude one of the largest single costs in that budget, Smedberg said.

Vice Mayor Redella S. Del Pepper, too, offered some reservations about the target. This is a very difficult process, she said. To meet this target, the manager must find $8 million in new revenue and that is if we simply maintain our current level of services. It is going to be very difficult.

The target does not include the school system, either. We encourage the manager to hold total spending to around $537 million or a five percent growth over this years budget but can only require that he hold the Citys own budget to $377.8 million at a maximum, said Council member Rob Krupicka, who read the proposed budget resolution. We would like the school system to limit their budget to a total of $169.8 million and we will look carefully at what they send us at the end of January and what the Manager proposes in February. This is going to be a very difficult year and we do not wish to increase real estate taxes as many other local jurisdictions are already proposing to do.

Mayor Bill Euille echoed the concerns of his colleagues. These are very hard financial times but nothing we havent gone through before. We will get through this if we all work together, he said.

The superintendent of schools will present her proposed FY 2008 budget to the Alexandria School Board on Dec. 19. The Board will adopt a budget on Jan. 31. Hartmann will present his proposed budget to City Council on Feb. 12.