More than a decade ago, a pair of residents set about proving what everybody already knew: Pollution from north Old Town’s GenOn plant put the lives of neighbors at risk.
Elizabeth Chimento and Poul Hertel — two names synonymous with the arduous struggle to banish the coal-fired plant — celebrated Monday as the facility finally shut down. City officials, as well as U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8), joined them for a press conference marking the momentous day.
As well they should have. Chimento and Hertel deserve enormous credit for getting the ball rolling, but they couldn’t have — and never tried — to do it alone. Spurred on by friends’ efforts, city councilors dug into the issue in 2004, forming a monitoring group and, in conjunction with state officials, wielded what regulatory authority they could to rein in the power plant.
In more recent years, resident activists and city officials received assistance from the Sierra Club, which opened an office in Del Ray and brought its Beyond Coal campaign to Alexandria.
To make a very long story short, GenOn closed in the face of resident, activist and political pressure. Of course, the company claims economics drove the decision to withdraw from Alexandria’s waterfront, but to ignore years of work and outreach is sheer folly.
But this call to action isn’t about what rests behind GenOn’s decision to shutter the facility. Rather, it’s the lessons Alexandrians can draw from this long, hard fight.
If anything, GenOn’s closure shows what residents can accomplish when they’re committed, willing to work together and partner effectively with City Hall. Too often we hear about our elected leaders’ and public employees’ failures; rarely do we enjoy seeing residents teaming up with the city to right a wrong or find a joint solution.
How do we apply this lesson? First and foremost by joining together to plan the future of the GenOn site. City officials will begin discussing the land — still owned by Pepco and leased by GenOn — in the coming weeks and months. They aim to draw up a redevelopment plan in the next three to five years.
City officials, particularly our elected leaders, should keep in mind that any publically perceived financial gain from GenOn’s redevelopment — the land will soon be worth its weight in gold — will slow the process. And residents ought to remember that such a prime location will see redevelopment, regardless of who sits on city council.
So this is your chance, Alexandria. With years of study and cleanup to go before development occurs, we — you — have an opportunity to shape the parcel’s future. City officials have put out an open invitation for residents and community groups, asking them to come to the table and share their ideas. Let’s not have a repeat of the waterfront redevelopment debacle; let’s get involved.