It took years of self-education, money out of their own pockets, and battles with corporate and government officials before they would get an answer.
The accidental activists are now close to seeing their decade’s worth of work redeemed. Officials from Alexandria and GenOn, the current owner of the 62-year-old, 485-megawatt coal-fired electrical station, announced Tuesday that they have reached an agreement to shut the facility next year.
Still, Chimento, 69, and Hertel, 52, are not ready to declare victory.
“I do fear there’s wiggle room” in the agreement, said Hertel, a ruddy, robust, white-haired economist. “Anything other than a shutdown by October 2012, or within a year, is going to be jeopardizing public health.”
Chimento, a volunteer teacher with a passion for research, wants first to examine the agreement, which neither she nor Hertel has seen, and then monitor the shutdown, if and when it happens, to be sure no more pollution is visible from her front step.
“It’s been an uphill struggle all the way,” she said.
In spring 2001, a few years after Pepco sold its power plant to Mirant, residents began to notice the residue, Chimento and Hertel said. Many suspected Mirant.
Armed with a hand-drawn diagram from her father that explained how power plants work, Chimento and her friend, Hertel, went first to the plant manager. He dismissed their concerns but said the company had hired a consultant who would investigate the residue.
Samples were taken from Chimento’s townhouse and from the townhouse next door. The material, Mirant’s consultant said, was common dirt that looked different from the plant’s fly ash. But when Chimento and Hertel, looking at the samples through an electron microscope, had the neighborhood samples magnified, it suddenly looked like the plant’s fly ash. Under questioning, the Mirant staff discovered that the samples were chemically identical.
But by then, the consultant had already sent a letter to City Hall reporting the finding of dirt. Most council members looked at it and shrugged.
Neither Chimento nor Hertel had training in chemistry, engineering or epidemiology, so when they were invited to the World Coal Congress in 2001, they were lost until they found a Pennsylvania State University professor willing to test their samples. Months later, the results were in: The dust was from the Mirant plant.
Seeking to confirm the university’s results, Hertel and Chimento turned to Richmond. First, the state Department of Environmental Quality sent a junior staff member to talk to them. Later, seeking production records from Mirant, the DEQ put them in “a room with 10,000 boxes” and told them they could look but not photocopy anything. Like in a scene from the movie “Erin Brockovich,” they found what they needed in the first box.