Concerns raised over former GenOn plant cleanup

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By Chris Teale (File photo)

Just three months ago, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality approved a corrective action plan at the former GenOn coal-fired power plant in North Old Town to remediate effects of two once leaking underground oil storage tanks at the site.

But the proposal has come under further scrutiny in recent months from D.C.’s District Department of the Environment and the National Park Service, both of which have raised concerns about certain aspects of NRG’s plan. For their part, the company responded to the DDOE this week with a revised plan, but the specifics of that are as yet unknown and may not be public for several weeks. City staff has not been provided the proposal.

In a letter to Burt McCullough, the director of environmental remediation at NRG dated May 12, Joshua Rodriguez, DDOE’s chief of the inspection and enforcement branch of the water quality division, said there are a number of shortcomings in the plan that need to be addressed to ensure any impacts on the Potomac River are dealt with effectively.

The letter from the DDOE states that the report has only “a limited understanding of the extent of subsurface contamination at the property and the adjacent U.S. National Park Service property.” It goes on to say that NRG must do everything possible to protect the water quality of the Potomac and prevent the discharge of any pollutants.

The DDOE’s letter is highly critical of the sampling data used by NRG, and the fact that the conclusions of the report are based on a single sample from October 2014. Other data collected earlier, showing “higher contaminant concentrations on the Potomac River shoreline, are not discussed or reconciled with the Oct. 2014 report,” the letter says. The DDOE goes on to say that any and all analysis should be done based on all sampling data.

Finally, the DDOE says the plan left out investigation of the screen house and areas around the bulkhead where contaminants exist and may form a groundwater pathway to the Potomac River. It requests that NRG respond by filling any and all data gaps and investigate heavy metals and various other contaminants produced by power plants. The DDOE also wants a response to their concerns about the level of pollutants in groundwater, which may be in violation of health standards and flow into the Potomac.

NRG was also directed to set up a work plan along the shoreline and the bulkhead and submit it to the DDOE for review and approval, while the agency further requires the company to initiate a quarterly sampling and analysis plan to monitor wells for toxic chemicals.

NRG spokesman David Gaier did not elaborate on the company’s response to the specifics of the DDOE’s letter, but said that it was formulated even though the DDOE’s requirements go beyond what was expected from VDEQ, who approved the remediation plan in its current form with some amendments required.

“On May 12 of this year, the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) sent a letter to NRG requesting certain work be conducted beyond what was required by VDEQ, in the vicinity of the Potomac River,” Gaier said in an email. “The DDOE is responsible for environmental matters related to the river, while the VDEQ is responsible for land-based environmental matters in Virginia.

“In response, NRG engaged a nationally-recognized environmental consulting group to prepare a response to DDOE which includes a plan of action that fully addresses its additional requests. Although the DDOE didn’t set a deadline to respond, we began developing a plan quickly, and in fact we expect to submit the proposed work plan [Monday]. Once DDOE approves it, we’ll begin the work.”

The DDOE’s letter came just three months after a letter from National Park Service superintendent Alexcy Romero, who raised some additional concerns with the plan. Romero’s letter, dated February 11, requested that NRG do additional research into contamination along the Mount Vernon Trail and ways that any damage can be mitigated.

The parks service criticized NRG’s lack of research into the bulkhead — a concern also raised by the DDOE — and any possible action required there. The NPS also raised concerns about the effect the tides will have on any cleanup operation, and whether NRG has any alternative strategies in mind to keep any impacts to a minimum.

Gaier did not address any of the specific concerns raised by the NPS, although he did note that NRG has applied for a special use permit to perform the work that is required.

Local activist and North Old Town resident Elizabeth Chimento has been involved with the closing and cleanup of the power plant for upwards of a decade, and says she sees the criticisms and concerns raised by both the DDOE and NPS as being similar enough to show there are still real problems in the cleanup plan that must be fixed.

“It’s clear they both had a number of criticisms; some of their criticisms were the same from both of them, but others were different,” she said. “Overall, it sounds to me like they both think not enough testing has occurred. DDOE does have the authority to require them to do these extra things, they have the authority to require this. My sense is I would give some validation to the complaints of the DDOE considering that both DDOE and NPS voiced a lot of these complaints when the CAP was [up for] public notice. I see some consistency there.”

NRG’s response will become public in the near future, and until then city residents and officials must sit tight and wait for its updated plan of action. In the meantime, the utility company says it remains determined to work with all parties to bring about an equitable solution.

“NRG is committed to resolving this issue as we work closely with DDOE, VDEQ, the National Park Service and all other stakeholders,” Gaier said.

Others are not so convinced.

“I just think NRG is going to do the least they can get by with, whatever it is,” Chimento said.

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