A plan by Georgetown University to build a new power plant 35 times as large as a plant there now has angered some residents, who stormed a public hearing earlier this week to voice their objections to a D.C. Council committee.
Residents contend that the facility will pollute the environment and that supporting power lines through the nearby neighborhood will pose a threat to people's health, all for what will be a profit-making but unregulated public utility for most of the next 20 years.
University officials say the plant is essential to meet the power needs of its expanding campus through 2010. They note that part of that expansion will be student housing that residents in nearby communities have requested for years.
The proposed plant would provide 56 megawatts of electricity to air-condition campus buildings. It would replace an existing plant that produces about 1.6 megawatts.
The university already uses 18 megawatts, most of which it buys from the Potomac Electric Power Co., said Bill Green, vice president of administration and facilities. With construction of planned new buildings, Georgetown will need 56 megawatts by 2010, he said.
If the generator is built by 1993 as Georgetown proposes, however, the power the university does not need will be sold to Pepco, university officials said. Actually, the power will all be sold to Pepco and the university will buy back the power it needs, Greeen said, because of the way power lines are connected to the university.
The generator will provide a yearly profit for the university until its building plan is complete, Georgetown officials said, but they could not say exactly how much.
About 10 residents of the nearby neighborhoods of Glover Park, Burleith, Georgetown and Foxhall voiced their opposition to all of this at a public hearing Monday before the D.C. Council's Committee on Finance and Revenue.
Under consideration there was legislation now before the council to allow the university to finance construction of new student dormitories with $343 million in city sponsored, tax-free bonds. Under a master plan for the campus recently approved by the city, the university must build dormitories for 925 students by 1997.
Residents said the committee hearing was an appropriate forum because they object to tax-free bonds supporting the building plans of a university that plans a private commercial venture in their community.
"Power plants do not belong in residential neighborhoods," said Fred Fleming, a commissioner of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3B, which represents an area that borders the campus's northern side.
Georgetown officials reassured the residents that the university would not use the bonds for the generator. But, said George Houston Jr., the university's treasurer, "in order to add 925 beds, we need additional utility capacity on campus." Building the plant will ultimately save the university $500,000 a year in utility costs, he said.
But some residents are unsympathetic. "We can't see why our neighborhood should have a heavy industrial plant right in our back yard," said Sophia Henry, representing the Glover Park Citizens Association. Toxic power plant emissions were among the list of pollutants targeted for inclusion this week in clean air legislation on Capitol Hill.
Residents said they were also concerned about two 69,000-volt power lines that would connect the generator to a Pepco facility on Little Falls Road near Sibley Memorial Hospital in Northwest. New research indicates that exposure to high doses of the electromagnetic fields of high voltage power lines could increase cancer risks.
The power lines have "nothing but hazard to offer to the neighborhood," said Judith Rosenfeld, a member of the Palisades Citizens Association.
University officials argued that their plant would be safe. "We will be using the best available control techniques. We will have a plant that is more efficient and more environmentally sound than the one we have right now," said Green.
"We certainly don't want a cancer-producing machine on campus next to student residences," said Houston.
As for the power lines, they are already in place and "we are not going to change anything and nothing is being added," said Gary Krul, director of public relations.
A few citizens raised another concern. They said the agreement between Pepco and the university amounts to allowing the university to operate, in effect, a tax-free commercial venture on its campus, an area that is zoned for residential use. Moreover, that venture would amount to a public utility without the regulation normally required for utilities.
Robert Mead, a Glover Park resident, sent a letter last month to Jesse Clay, acting secretary of D.C.'s Public Service Commission, asking the commission to step in. Clay responded by asking citizens, Pepco and the university to send him comments on whether the commission should have jurisdiction over the plant.
For the most part, council members seemed sympathetic to citizens' concerns. Council member Jim Nathanson (D-Ward 3) questioned why Georgetown couldn't just rely on Pepco for its power. "Other builders aren't asking to create their own power source," he said.
"It's an alternative," said Green. "But an expensive one."
The council will vote on the bond issue next month. The D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment may hold additional hearings on the generator in January.