RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Dozens of old coal-fired power plants across the country still haven't installed modern pollution controls. But there's one plant across the Potomac River from the White House that's unique. It's so special that the federal government is bending pollution rules to keep it running.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

The federal government sees the Mirant power station in Alexandria, Virginia as an essential source of electricity for central Washington. But local politicians and residents see it as an especially potent health hazard. They say even though the plant was here first, it doesn't belong in a neighborhood that's now full of garden apartments, brick townhouses, and high-rise condominiums.

Ms. MARY HARRIS(ph): Come on into my apartment. This is pretty much ground zero for whatever happens at the Mirant power plant. As you can see, it's front and center.

SHOGREN: When we step into Mary Harris's 14th floor condo, the plant and its five stubby exhaust stacks loom so large through her windows that it's almost as if they're right there in the room.

Most power plant stacks rise several hundred feet so the pollution diffuses over a large area, but the Mirant stacks aren't much higher than Harris's apartment. They were built short so they wouldn't get in the way of airplanes from Reagan National Airport.

As we walk out onto Harris's balcony, a coal train arrives.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

SHOGREN: Harris says there's something about living next to a power plant that's far worse than all the noise.

Ms. HARRIS: Dust, dust, dust and more dust.

SHOGREN: She says the dust is a sign of the air pollution that fills her home and her lungs. When Harris moved in, she assumed that a power plant so close to the nation's capitol must have modern pollution controls. But several years ago, she and some neighbors started to investigate the plant's emissions.

Ms. HARRIS: We felt that they were a problem. There were a lot of people getting sick in this building. What we asked for was just tell us what is coming out of those stacks.

SHOGREN: Pushed by the neighborhood activists, the state of Virginia ordered a study. The results were shocking. They showed that under some weather conditions, the pollution could settle into the neighborhood, forcing residents to breathe air with 15-times more than the acceptable amount of sulfur dioxide. That's a pollutant that can trigger asthma, cause lung ailments and even heart attacks.

The state ordered the plant to clean up immediately. The plant couldn't do it, so it shut down instead. Harris said she was delighted.

Ms. HARRIS: I mean it was really like night and day here. We didn't realize how bad it had been until it stopped.

SHOGREN: But it wasn't long before the federal Energy Department ordered the plant to reopen, saying it was needed to prevent blackouts in federal facilities.

There are only two other sources of electricity for central Washington, both transmission lines. The Environmental Protection Agency was assigned to work with the plant on how to produce as much electricity as possible without polluting too much.

The plant adopted a new chemical technique that significantly cut its sulfur dioxide emissions, but it was still too dirty. That's when the EPA gave the plant an unusual deal.

Judith Katz heads the EPA's mid-Atlantic air pollution program.

Ms. JUDITH KATZ (Director, Mid-Atlantic Air Protection Program, Environmental Protection Agency): It is unusual and it's an unusual deal required by the unusual circumstances that we find ourselves in.

SHOGREN: A little explanation here: Weather conditions like wind and cloud cover have a big impact on air quality. Usually, a power plant must figure out how much pollution it can emit safely during the worst possible weather and then always limit its emissions to that level.

EPA let's Mirant change its emissions from day-to-day based on daily weather forecasts. Katz concedes this allows the plant to emit more pollution than EPA usually allows. But she says it's justified.

Ms. KATZ: Not only at this plant do we have to worry about our primary concern, which is public health, but we also have to be concerned about insuring electric reliability for the nation's capital.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) you want to just tell Elizabeth what we're looking at here.

SHOGREN: On a steamy summer day, plant officials give me a tour of the 55-year-old facility. We start on the roof. Engineers say the plant produces electricity efficiently and cleanly in an area where the demand for it is great.

In the control room, Bob Driscoll defends the plant's record. He's the CEO of Mirant's power plants in the mid-Atlantic. He says air quality monitors his company just installed show that the plant isn't creating unhealthy air in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Mr. BOB DRISCOLL (CEO, Mid-Atlantic Region, Mirant Corporation): We have physical monitors which are in places where concentrations would be at their highest. And those physical monitors demonstrate daily that we are well below limits that have been set by the EPA.

SHOGREN: He says the monitors are proving earlier studies wrong.

Mr. DRISCOLL: We intend to continue to operate this plant reliably and in compliance with all of our environmental obligations.

SHOGREN: But the EPA says the monitors are so new it's too early for conclusions. Alexandria officials and local activists say the plant is still too dirty. They're concerned about another kind of pollution: ultra-fine particles or soot. The EPA says it's the deadliest pollution from power plants, but requirements for cleaning it up don't kick in for several years.

Harvard University environmental health professor Jonathan Levy studied the Potomac River station and several other power plants owned by Mirant. He found the plants were pumping enough of this fine soot into the air to kill a couple hundred people a year in the region.

Mr. JONATHAN LEVY (Professor of Environmental Health and Risk Assessment, Harvard University): We see a number of premature deaths that have been associated with fine particles, as well as hospitalizations, heart attacks, effects on asthmatics as well as effects on people who may have cardiovascular disease.

SHOGREN: A loophole in the Clean Air Act lets many old coal-fired power plants avoid installing modern pollution controls. The EPA says each year tens of thousands of older Americans die early because of the fine soot emitted from these plants.

Levy did his study before the Potomac plant cleaned up. But he says it's possible that even though the plant reduced sulfur dioxide emissions it's still pumping too much fine soot into the neighborhood.

Mr. LEVY: Controlling sulfur dioxide will help with the total public health burden, but it may not alleviate the concerns of the local community which tend to be dominated more by the soot that's coming directly out of the power plant.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

SHOGREN: Mary Harris, the neighborhood activist whose condo overlooks the plant, says the plant should close.

Ms. HARRIS: They were here first, but we're here now. This community has changed tremendously. It is not an industrial area. It has not been an industrial area for 20 years. They've added some new pollution controls. But even with what they have, it's too close to people.

SHOGREN: The city of Alexandria is suing the plant to try to shut it down. And another utility is building a new transmission line to central Washington. Federal officials say once that new line is up, the Mirant power plant will lose its special status. Then, either the plant could prove it's no longer a menace, or Mary Harris might get her wish.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: If you're interested in reading about the health hazards and the legal loophole that allows older power plants to avoid installing advanced pollution controls, go to npr.org.

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