A story in the Nov. 8 District Weekly failed to point out that the Benning Road plant of the Potomac Electrict Power Co., a facility used only during periods of peak usage, operates less than eight weeks of the year. Pepco officials say smoke that people may see above the plant when it is not in operation could be the result of a city trash incinerator directly behind the plant. Pepco officials also said their operation meets all D.C. clean air standards and that studies have shown no health risks from emissions at the plant. (Published 11/17/90)

Two years ago, George Gurley didn't know a megawatt from a kilowatt. At age 62, the longtime civic activist had neither the high-tech experience nor the degree in science to talk knowledgeably about nitrogen oxides and particulates, turbines and oil-fired generators, sulfur dioxides or nitrogen oxide.

He learned fast, he said, because at stake is the air he breathes and the health of his River Terrace neighborhood across Benning Road from the Potomac Electric Power Co. plant that belches billows of smoke over his tidy community.

Two weeks ago, Pepco announced that it had withdrawn its application to build two new generators at the 75-acre plant in far Northeast. And city officials, neighborhood leaders and lawyers in the midst of the fray say the turnaround was in large part the work of spirited pressure from citizens and environmentalists.

They also say the catalyst was Gurley.

"If all my research had not been put into this, they would have kicked our butts and been laughing at us," said Gurley, an advisory neighborhood commissioner since 1976. "I was dealing with some highly technical stuff here. I had to know what I was talking about."

Gurley argued that power plant generators spew hazardous emissions into the air that can cause cancer and respiratory problems. He and others blamed the plant for complaints by some River Terrace residents of watery eyes and breathing problems. They also noted that their ward, along with Wards 5 and 6, has the highest incidence of cancer in the District, according to a study last year by D.C. health commissioner Reed V. Tuckson.

In the end, Pepco officials said they abandoned their plans because of the downturn in the economy, new conservation programs underway and opportunities to purchase power from other sources, including a plant to be built in Loudoun County.

Earlier this year, Maryland officials also had granted permission for Pepco to build two 105-megawatt generators at its Chalk Point plant in rural southern Prince George's County.

"In Benning, the need was no longer there," said Pepco spokeswoman Nancy Moses.

But residents in River Terrace boast that the electric company backed down because of their organized and visible protests, with Gurley in the lead.

"This was a major victory for us," said Linda E. Dixon, a longtime River Terrace resident who has two children.

To celebrate, the River Terrace Community Association will hold a victory party at the River Terrace Community School a week from Saturday, where it will present Gurley with a plaque.

"If it weren't for George Gurley, this thing would have never happened," said Kevin P. Chavous, a lawyer who volunteered to represent the River Terrace residents. "By and large, Gurley was the one who kept the momentum going."

Pepco had applied in 1988 to the D.C. Public Service Commission for permission to add the two 105-megawatt units at Benning Road, saying the utility, which serves 645,000 customers in the District and suburban Maryland, needed them to avoid brownouts.

Chavous said that in one dispute over megawatt usage with Pepco President Edward E. Mitchell, Gurley knew better than the experts because "he did his homework."

Not so, recalled Moses. "They can claim that they were correct, but {Gurley's figures} were still not correct."

Gurley became the leader of the fight, he and others say, because as an Air Force retiree, he had the most time to spend on the issue.

His role soon became a full-time job: at night at local public libraries he researched the hazards of dioxides, carbon monoxide and other gases and taught himself the basics of energy technology.

During the day, he visited D.C. Council members and regulatory agencies, appeared on radio talk shows, wrote letters and enlisted the aid of consumer advocates, including Ralph Nader, to help fight the Pepco plan.

On Earth Day this year, Gurley and his activists attracted national environmental groups, including Greenpeace USA and the Sierra Club, to a protest rally outside the facility.

"I think {River Terrace} was targeted because they felt that they would have no opposition," he said. "Black people in this country have never been known to fight against environmental changes. They're out trying to get food on the table."

Peter Bahouth, Greenpeace USA executive director, called Gurley a fighter. "He kept on top of it. He knew what he was talking about. He knew their facility was wrong and was hurting his neighborhood," Bahouth said.

Although the application for expansion has been withdrawn, Gurley said he has no intention of stepping aside.

While Pepco officials say there is no scientific evidence of a connection between the power plant and the cancer rate in the area, Gurley said the power plant should pollute less and be more closely monitored.

"The battle has been won but the fight is still going on," Gurley said.