Lights Out: GenOn’s rocky relationship with Alexandria ends

Lights Out: GenOn’s rocky relationship with Alexandria ends
Drew Combs, a control room supervisor, walks the plant’s corridors days before the facility powered down for good. (Photo/Susan Braun)

By Melissa Quinn (Photo/Susan Braun)

The dust covered everything. The dirt-like film seeped into homes, coated windowsills and blanketed parked cars.

When north Old Town residents first noticed the grimy substance a little more than a decade ago, they began closing their windows, hoping the glass panes would keep the dust at bay. For many, like homeowner Poul Hertel, the measure did little to abate the grime.

Hertel dutifully scrubbed his house, taking a mop to his floors and a rag to his windows, only to find his home dirty a day or two later — as if it hadn’t been cleaned in years. He did not need to look far to find the culprit.

The Old Town resident and his neighbors always knew the coal-fired GenOn power plant was nearby; its five short stacks remain a staple of the Potomac River skyline. But as the dust continued to settle, Hertel grew increasingly worried. If the grime could dirty a home, what was it doing to his body?

Workers at Pepco, which owns the land along the river, told him environmental concerns about the pollution existed but reassured him the emissions were only dangerous at certain levels.

A skeptical Hertel looked to science for clarification.

Based in part on his dogged efforts, undertaken years prior, the plant’s turbines powered down Monday, marking the end of a tumultuous relationship between GenOn and city residents. Northern Virginia’s single-largest pollutant has seen its last days.

“Everybody … should take a deep breath,” said City Councilor Del Pepper at a celebratory press conference just beyond the building’s gated front entrance. “It is over, and [GenOn] is closed.”

From ignored to ignominy

Back when train cars still regularly rested on rails near Union Street, residents welcomed the addition of the plant in an industrial-oriented city, said John Komoroski, a planning commission member and Alexandria native. The now-loathed plant fit well in 1950s and ’60s Old Town.

The area smelled because the sewage treatment plant didn’t properly filter waste, and the land surrounding the plant was largely devoid of homes and apartments, Komoroski recalled.

“It was just kind of there,” he said of the plant, built in 1949. “It had low stacks, and no one picked up that the stuff was bad.”

Residents largely ignored the GenOn plant, then known as Mirant, until the dust began to settle. Then Hertel and fellow city resident Elizabeth Chimento got involved.

On the other side of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the same dust that plagued Hertel covered Chimento’s property, coating her exterior walls, outdoor furniture and car. She and Hertel banded together, hoping to learn if the dust came — as they suspected — from the plant.

“They kept telling us, ‘What you have in your house is common dirt,’” Hertel said. “You have a cleaning level and maintain the same cleaning level, and all of a sudden you have a disaster in your house? It just [didn’t] add up.”

Chimento and Hertel examined samples of the dirt under a microscope and brought their findings to Alexandria’s elected officials. The dust was fly ash — a harmful particle linked to asthma, bronchitis and heart disease — direct from the plant. Still, city leaders initially turned a blind eye, Hertel said.

“They took the position that if we do nothing, the plant will go away quicker,” Hertel said.

But before long, city councilors commissioned a study on the effects of the pollution. When the results came in, “it was a disaster for everyone,” Hertel said. He and Chimento were vindicated.

After a string of state emissions violations, the plant temporarily shuttered — only to reopen in December 2005.

GenOn officials implemented more environmentally friendly alternatives to lessen emissions but continued to violate state Environmental Quality Department standards along the way. Richmond fined the plant $275,000 last year and again in August — a violation that remains pending.

In 2008, the troubled plant and city entered into an agreement to lessen its emissions, placing $34 million in escrow for environmental improvements. The conditions outlined in the agreement made it difficult for the plant to operate, Hertel said.

By August 2011, the city and GenOn reached another agreement: to permanently shut down the plant. Company officials called closing the facility an economic decision.

“It’s the right decision for the business,” said company spokeswoman Misty Allen at the time. “We think ultimately that [the decision] isn’t all that much of a surprise looking at the constraints of potential additional [environmental] controls.”

That’s not quite the entire story, Hertel said.

“This is an economic decision, but on the other hand, the decision was made a lot easier because of all the work put in by Elizabeth, myself, the city and other citizens,” he said.

Planning for the future

As Hertel, Chimento and city officials celebrated Monday morning, most of the facility’s 120 workers entered into retirement or began new jobs. GenOn, which holds an 88-year lease on the land, must complete its deactivation procedures before any plans for the plant’s future can start.

Hertel hopes a park will be built, though city officials see development down the road. Plans will be drawn up in the coming three to five years, Mayor Bill Euille told a group of reporters.

But even as officials look forward, their years-long fight will serve as inspiration to other municipalities, said U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8).

“Because of … a committed citizenry, officials and our city staff, [GenOn] was held accountable,” Moran said. “We’ve got 200 other power plants around the country — and [those communities] need to do what Alexandria did … Other communities need to do what Alexandria has accomplished.”