UPDATED: Activists claim victory as market forces cause GenOn to power down coal plant

UPDATED: Activists claim victory as market forces cause GenOn to power down coal plant

After years of pressure from residents, environmental activists and city officials, the Potomac River Generating Station is slated to close for by October 1, 2012.

Alexandria and plant officials signed an agreement to retire the plant, owned by GenOn Energy, on Monday. The coal-fired power plant, first opened on the north end of Royal Street in 1949, has long drawn ire from residents, city officials and environmental activists for damaging Alexandrias air quality.

Both the Alexandria City Council and community have worked extremely hard toward this goal, and we are very proud of the final result, said Mayor Bill Euille in a statement. This news strengthens Alexandrias future and opens the door to an enhanced quality of life for our residents.

Its a surprising victory for activist Elizabeth Chimento, who lives a block from the plant. She began the battle against GenOn more than 10 years ago when she noticed black dust covering the windowsills and cars of her neighborhood. Her investigations spawned more local activists, interest from City Hall and attention from environmental officials, leading to a coordinated campaign against the coal plant. The Sierra Club opened a Del Ray office late last year specifically to flip the switch on GenOn.

I just fell forward because weve been working on this uphill battle for 11 years and I didnt know if it would ever happen, Chimento said. To me this is something that the citizens and the city can be so proud of because we worked together, kept focused on the goal, and it was always based on science, not political propaganda.

The generating station emits particulate matter minute pieces of dust that can cause respiratory problems and sulfur dioxide. While it has incurred penalties in the past, including a $300,000 fine earlier this year, the plant is in line with local and national standards. 

And despite mounting pressure and outrage over air quality, the companys decision to close is economic, GenOn spokeswoman Misty Allen said. Stiffer environmental regulations coming down the pike, a lower demand for electricity and the affordability of natural gas made future capital investments in the plant risky. 

Its the right decision for the business. We think ultimately that todays announcement is all that much of a surprise, looking at the constraints of potential additional [environmental] controls.

The city will release roughly $32 million held in escrow, originally set aside to pay for environmental improvements at the plant following a deal struck in 2008. That figure contributed to GenOns decision as well, Allen said.

The Alexandria power plant contributes only about 5 percent to the regions power grid, according to a Sierra Club-funded study by Analysis Group, a local utility research firm. The plant operates at 20 percent of its yearly capacity, Allen said.

In a statement, GenOn Chairman and CEO Edward Muller called the decision a difficult one for the energy company. The plant employs about 120 workers, including some Alexandria residents.

Our decision to retire the plant is not reflective of our employees skills, dedication or capabilities, and we will work to help them in their transition over the next year, Muller said.