- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

For the past several years, I have been watching the political battle to shut down the coal-burning Mirant Potomac River Generating Station in Alexandria because critics say the pollution emitted from the plant is endangering the health of area residents.

But in the past two months, the scare has heightened.

Two recent health reports — one from the Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and one from Penn State University’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center — indicate that Alexandrians living within a four-block radius of the PRGS are in the red zone of potential health concerns and others also could be harmed.

Others as in those who run along the Mount Vernon bicycle trail that hugs the Potomac River and meanders past the awkward-looking electricity-generating plant and its coal field.

“You may wish to provide health messages to your community,” William Cibulas Jr., PhD, and director of Division of Health Assessment and Consultation for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry for the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services wrote to Charles Konigsberg Jr., M.D., health director at the Alexandria Health Department.

“We recognize the difficulty in doing so with incomplete information,” he continued. “Still, some messages may be worthwhile. Messages designed to educate teachers, parents and children about the importance of recognizing and treating asthma and the hazards of certain air pollutants seem reasonable.”

The warning comes from an initial review of modeling data for exposure to sulfur dioxide (SO2) at the plant conducted by ATSDR that suggests a hazard to vulnerable populations from short-term impacts.

“Acute exposures to short-term SO2 levels estimated by air dispersion modeling of Mirant air emissions under current operating conditions may be of public health concern to exercising asthmatics and asthmatic children,” Cibulas wrote. “Healthy, nonasthmatic individuals are generally unaffected by acute exposures to concentrations of SO2 that are below, 1 parts per million.”

However, he emphasized in his report which can viewed at https://alexandriava.gov/pdfs/letter_AHD.pdf that “there is significant uncertainty with the modeling data and this interpretation. … Because of the uncertainty in the air dispersal model and the need to collect additional monitoring data, we cannot determine at this time if a public health hazard exists.”

Even though the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) issued an order in January that determined that residents do not need to be relocated when the plant is operating under the order’s guidelines, city of Alexandria officials continue their legal fight to shutter the plant. In 2005, Mirant was shut down after the District of Columbia Public Service Commission filed a complaint about pollution from the plant but DOE ordered the plant back online at the end of 2005, claiming its operation was necessary to the energy needs of the region.

The report from Rebecca Bascom, M.D., professor of medicine at Penn State College of Medicine, was much more direct on the health hazards caused by air pollutants purportedly being emitted by Mirant.

The report is a summary of the analyses of dust samples collected from exterior locations and inside residents’ homes in the communities adjacent to and nearby the PRGS.

“Unfortunately, the particles landing outside and inside Alexandria residences are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the total number of particulates emanating from the PRGS,” Bascom said. “Using actual weather conditions and PRGS’s activity records, modeling studies have shown alarming levels of coal particulates in Alexandria’s air, frequently exceeding health based particulate air pollution limits.”

Debra Bolton, Atlanta-based Mirant’s vice president and assistant general counsel who lives in Alexandria, said Friday that “the City of Alexandria was not asked to warn its residents. The report said they cannot determine that there is a health hazard. The issue is a regional air quality issue. We are in compliance with the NAAQS (EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standard). We have six monitors up around the plant and they are nowhere near the max.”

And the health hazards to Alexandria’s residents and visitors?

“We care very much about the health of the area. We don’t believe they are [at risk]. The initial ATSDR review is from models that appear to be faulty,” said Bolton, who once lived just two blocks from the plant during her 17 years in Alexandria.

“I’m looking at the data not at the politics and we are in compliance with the federal standards,” Bolton said, adding that Mirant’s plan to reconfigure its five smoke stacks into two should put final resolution to the issue.

In the meantime, I think I will avoid the Mirant section of the Mount Vernon trail on my training runs and bike rides.

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