By Luke Anderson | [email protected]
Since shutting down almost eight years ago, the Potomac River Generating Station in Old Town North has remained fenced off and unused. However, there may finally be movement toward redevelopment of the site.
Potomac Electric Power Company, owner of the 25-acre site at 1300 N. Royal St., is scheduled to go before the Alexandria Planning Commission on March 3 with a plan to divide the property into three separate lots. If approved, the subdivision would make it easier for PEPCO to keep certain parts of the property and sell the rest to developers.
The power plant itself is owned by GenOn, a power company that has a 99-year site lease agreement with PEPCO. Between name changes, spin-offs and mergers, there have been a number of different names attached to the site through the years.
The current agreement began in 2000 with Southern Energy Potomac River. Other names that have been attached to the site include Mirant, GenOn and NRG.
“My understanding of what this subdivision is doing is that … it would enable a fee ownership of the land,” Jeffrey Farner, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said. “So rather than a long-term lease, it would be a fee ownership, which would enable the future redevelopment.”
Fee ownership is more flexible than leasehold ownership, according to Zillow. Essentially, a fee simple owner has ownership of the property and can use the land as they wish. The buyer of leasehold real estate does not own the land; instead, they have the right to use it for a pre-determined period of time, according to Zillow.
As laid out in the proposed subdivision, Lot 1 – the largest lot at 818,944 square feet – contains the power plant and an administrative building and is the area most likely to be redeveloped.
PEPCO plans to hold onto Lot 2 – 164,734 square feet – which encompasses a parking lot at the site’s northern end, and Lot 3 – 121,285 square feet – which contains an electrical substation.
The coal-fired power plant began operations in 1949 to provide power to Washington D.C. and serve as a backup for the Pentagon, according to Bill Skrabak, deputy director of infrastructure and environmental quality with the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. The plant provided no power for Alexandria.
In the last few decades of its operation, PRGS gained a reputation as a major source of air pollution. In the early 2000s, residents living in close proximity to the power plant began complaining of black dust covering their balconies.
Two Alexandrians – Elizabeth Chimento and Poul Hertel – paid to fund research on the black dust. Through the investigation they found that the dust originated from PRGS, uniting the community against the plant and the potentially adverse health risks it posed.
By 2004, city council formed and appointed a monitoring committee led by city council members Del Pepper and Paul Smedberg. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the State Air Pollution Control Board became involved, and the plant was shut down in 2005; however, it reopened a month later due to reliability issues of the electrical transmission grid.
In 2006, PEPCO installed updates to the transmission grid that allowed sufficient electricity to be generated without the plant operating. Still, the plant continued operations under an EPA Administrative Consent Order.
“They wanted to move forward and we kept blocking them,” Pepper said. “It was kind of like a stalemate, in my opinion.”
In July 2008, GenOn agreed to place $34 million in an escrow account for the city to spend on air pollution control equipment. The city used $2 million of the escrow money before GenOn pulled out of the agreement and agreed to permanently close the plant in exchange for the return of the remaining $32 million.
“We practically fell off our chairs because that meant we had won,” Pepper said. “It wasn’t a matter of who wins and who loses; it’s a matter of cleaning it up.”
The plant shut down for good on Oct. 1, 2012.
In 2013, during regulatory testing on the site, petroleum was detected in the soil’s subsurface. Approximately 17,000 gallons of heating oil had leaked into the ground from two of the facility’s 25,000-gallon underground storage tanks.
The spill affected around 12,000 square feet of land stretching from the PRGS basement to the Mt. Vernon trail, which winds between the plant and the Potomac River.
Groundwater samples collected from a retaining wall at the river’s edge “contained detectable concentrations of petroleum contaminants consistent with heating oil,” according to the VDEQ website.
NRG, which owned the power plant at the time, initiated a remediation program in 2015. Although the plant has since been sold back to GenOn, VDEQ has continued to oversee remediation since the program began.
“There was significant contamination at the time of the start of the case,” Alex Wardle, a remediation specialist with VDEQ, said. “[GenOn is] in the process of monitoring to see whether they need to do anything further before we grant them closure. But we’re still a couple years out before making any decisions in relation to that.”
While active remediation ended in September 2019, groundwater monitoring wells on the site are still tested every three months for key petroleum contaminants, Wardle said. Currently, the contaminants do not pose any health risks to humans or the environment. If petroleum levels rebound, additional remediation may be necessary.
A certain level of oil is likely to remain in the soil. Typically, 50 percent of contamination will degrade over a two- to three-year period; therefore, it is rare to see all contamination removed, Wardle said.
Although any potential developer would need to be notified of the oil spill, redevelopment would not require eliminating all of the petroleum in the soil.
“Nothing in the petroleum program precludes them from moving forward with redevelopment,” Wardle said.
“Unfortunately, we are waiting for the property owner to move forward in terms of either redeveloping themselves or selling the property to a developer,” Farner said. “One of the things we heard from them was that an important first step was to create a master plan of what the city and the community were expecting so when they either redevelop it or put it in the market to be redeveloped, they know the city’s and the community’s expectations.”
In 2017, city council adopted an update to the Old Town North small area plan that would designate the area as an arts district.
For the PRGS site specifically, the plan involves extending existing streets onto the property and creating an urban street grid. The plan also suggests enhancing views of the Potomac from the waterfront. With the power plant gone, an additional two to four acres of public space could be added along the water. Landscaping of public spaces and parks would incorporate existing railroad tracks as an ode to the area’s industrial history.
With input from advisory groups and the community, the updated plan laid out expectations for future redevelopment. In the meantime, GenOn still has 79 years left on its site lease agreement with PEPCO, which could complicate things.
“PEPCO and GenOn will have to work out future ownership of that,” Skrabak said.
Until then, Alexandrians will have to wait a little longer.