A dinosaur of Alexandrias industrial past, the GenOn power plant, has committed to leaving the city. Its owners would have us believe it was on its own terms a savvy business move in a changing energy marketplace. The truth is, while market forces certainly contributed, the commitment from residents, activists and elected officials ultimately pushed the plant over the edge of the Potomac River.
For about 10 years a grassroots faction has fought to remove the GenOn (formerly Mirant) power plant from its north Old Town location.
Angry residents like Elizabeth Chimento and Paul Hertel, concerned for their health, became environmental activists; environmentally minded elected officials like council members Del Pepper and Paul Smedberg used their clout to prod the polluting, coal-fired plant and environmental activists like the Sierra Club came to town and became local sympathizers.
However, GenOn fought back. It was far from an ideal industrial neighbor, but it was and is here legally. The coal plant existed long before the dense housing developments that rose up next to it. The company donated no small sum to community initiatives like the Alexandria Scholarship Fund as well.
Still, residents could have gone without its black dust and particulate matter (think miniscule shards of glass floating around like milkweed). And the plant was no stranger to fines for encroaching on mandated environmental standards the latest was a $300,000 violation earlier this year.
Without the spark from civically engaged residents like Chimento and Hertel, who investigated the plant even before City Hall became involved, GenOn would not be shuttering its operation in 2012. Their commitment generated a chain of events that in 2008 led to a $34-million settlement between the city and the plant. GenOn spent $2 million on safety improvements, and the rest has been sitting in escrow ever since. Meanwhile, GenOns leadership pondered whether improving public health was worth a profit loss.
When GenOn leaves, itll be taking the leftover $32 million with it. No doubt that money firmed up the handshake between GenOn and City Hall. And that money wouldnt exist if residents hadnt blown the whistle 10 years ago.
The commitment from civically engaged activists to oust the plant has been a clinic in civics and must be applauded as an example a precedent for the future.