An unmistakable landmark, the plant’s five short smokestacks identified the Alexandria riverfront as much as the George Washington Masonic Memorial does from a hill near the King Street Metro station.
Those stacks also pushed untold tons of air pollution into the skies over the District, Maryland and Virginia, marking the plant as the largest single source of air pollution in the Washington region.
Almost 15,000 tons of coal remain in a pile outside the facility, enough to fuel the electrical generating engines for five days. But as of midnight Sunday, the 63-year-old coal-fired power plant will permanently shut down.
The end came more than a decade after two citizens discovered the extent of the health hazard from the fine particulates that settled out of the smoke and into the lungs of people who live, work and play nearby. Working on their own and slowly picking up support from neighbors, environmental groups and local, state and federal officials, Elizabeth Chimento and Poul Hertel relied on scientific studies and persistence in the face of multiple setbacks.
‘Always a struggle’
“At this point I’m just very happy this plant is closing and we will not have the harmful pollutants that impacted public health,” Chimento said. “It was always a struggle. . . . This is not an Erin Brockovich movie. This is a lot of hard work.”
“Early on, we wanted to focus on facts and science and policy, and not politics,” said Paul Smedberg (D), an Alexandria City Council member who was the first city official to support their work.
“It was a real community effort. . . . And when you think about the resources that Mirant, then GenOn, threw against us while we basically had three people at first — it took a lot of work, a lot of convincing others.”
Their efforts attracted attention, including a proposal by a nonprofit group that someone spend $450 million to transform it into an eco-friendly project. In July 2011, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) stood on a boat on the Potomac in front of the GenOn plant and donated $50 million from his charitable foundation to support the Sierra Club’s efforts to close the country’s coal-fired plants.
Shifting the credit
GenOn says it wasn’t activism but the changing economics of running a 482-megawatt coal-fired plant that caused the closure. The plant, which provided energy mostly during times of peak usage for the mid-Atlantic power grid, ran for 72 consecutive days this past summer.