George Washington once called his Mount Vernon estate, with a view of the winding Potomac River, the most “pleasantly situated” in “United America.”
Nearly two centuries later, John F. Kennedy gazed on that panorama — which extends to the green wetlands of Southern Maryland — as he hosted the president of Pakistan for a state dinner.
And most recently, French President Emmanuel Macron told his U.S. counterpart that he was “intrigued” this natural landscape could be preserved so close to the nation’s capital.
But the bucolic scenery may soon be punctuated by two exhaust stacks — part of a proposed natural-gas facility across the river that Mount Vernon’s leadership has joined with environmentalists to fight.
Dominion Energy, the Virginia-based power company, has petitioned to build a compressor station in Charles County to pump gas through a recently restored pipeline that cuts across the capital region.
Chet Wade, Dominion’s vice president of corporate communications, said the Charles Station compressor project would be invisible from across the river, powering a proposed electric plant and bringing natural gas to Washington Gas Light customers in the D.C. region.
Still, that’s not enough to justify the project’s location to Mount Vernon President Doug Bradburn, who said the Fairfax County site tries to re-create U.S. history for more than a million visitors each year.
“The goal is to imagine you’re walking in the footsteps of George Washington . . . of all the Founding Fathers of the country,” Bradburn said in an interview. “You could be easily taken out of that if your view from the estate was filled with development and smokestacks.”
On Tuesday, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added the Mount Vernon estate to its annual list of the most endangered historic places in the United States.
Across the river in Maryland, community leaders and environmental activists have raised their own objections to the compressor, arguing it could harm nature and human health in this rural, wooded part of the state.
The demands from each side of the Potomac have created an environmental Catch-22: While Dominion officials have indicated they will limit the two exhaust stacks to 50 feet to blend in with the forest, activists say shorter stacks would increase the risk of air pollution.
Kelly Canavan, who founded the AMP Creeks Council, a local environmental group that has been battling Dominion, said she doesn’t want to see the compressor station — which would not provide power to local communities — go up at all.
“If it does get built, I want those stack heights to be as high as they can possibly be so that the pollution is dispersed away from people and wildlife, no matter who sees them,” said Canavan, who lives in nearby Accokeek, Md. “I don’t want big plumes of gas getting trapped here just so that Mount Vernon’s view will not be obstructed.”
Activists and preservationists alike say Dominion has misled them about the height of the exhaust stacks, with some government filings indicating that the structures could reach up to 113 feet.
But Dominion’s Wade said the compressor would blend into the forest in any case. A study of the view conducted by the Chesapeake Conservancy and commissioned in part by Mount Vernon said that there would be no “direct visibility” from any viewpoints at Washington’s estate.
Another worry shared by activists such as Canavan and preservationists at Mount Vernon is the risk of a potential fire or explosion at the compressor.
Charles Station is served by a flood-prone rural road and two volunteer fire departments that rely on a hydrant miles away and have failed to put out several recent blazes, including one in March that killed a Bryans Road man and his dog.
This concern was shared by the Charles County Board of Appeals, which in 2017 denied the company’s requests for a special exception to build the station in the rural conservation area.
Dominion has secured federal approval for the compressor, but it still needs to receive air and water permits from the state of Maryland. The company is suing Charles County to try to begin construction as early as this year.
But Mount Vernon’s Bradburn said he has history on his side. In the 1950s and ’60s, the estate fended off separate plans to construct an oil tank and a three-
story sewage facility, both near the proposed compressor site.
Those battles led to the creation of Piscataway Park — on the banks of the Potomac in Maryland — as well as conservation agreements that limit construction on nearby homes.
The land covered by those agreements amounts to about 5,000 acres, stretching for six miles along the shoreline into Prince George’s County and into the green wetlands Washington once admired. But it stops right at Dominion’s property.
Correction: An earlier version of this report said an Accokeek man died in a March fire. He was from Bryans Road.