This week, we celebrated the conclusion of a long fought but well won victory for those who live in the Washington metro region: on October 1, the coal-fired GenOn Potomac River Power Plant in Alexandria shut its doors for good. After years of citizen involvement and work by committed local and federal officials, the Potomac River Generating Station, built in 1949, was finally held accountable for its egregious Clean Air Act violations.
The GenOn plant was grandfathered under the 1990 Clean Air Act and exempt from having to use modern emission control requirements. Because of its location within the flight path of National Airport, the plant had shortened smokestacks that dumped its pollution directly into Northern Virginia’s air. Under certain weather conditions, Alexandria residents, some living within 300 yards of the plant, were exposed to high levels of toxic exhaust and suffered from headaches, nausea and difficulty breathing. And the exposure to this dirty air was not limited to a neighborhood in Alexandria. It was the single largest stationary source of air pollution inside the Capital Beltway.
At about the same time, the plant owner, Mirant (today it is owned by GenOn) , was in bankruptcy court trying to get out from under its business deal with PEPCO. It was in flagrant violation of its operating permit, emitting more than 2,000 tons of ozone forming nitrogen oxide, twice the legal limit. The plant appeared to be ramping up its electricity output to improve its financial situation — and local residents were paying the price through their health.
Spearheaded by two citizens, Elizabeth Cimento and Poul Hertel, an engaged community network formed to address this issue. Working together, we were able to pressure state officials to dig deeper into the coal-fired plant’s operations and require measurement of affected air quality. These investigations ultimately led to federal and state restrictions on the plant’s permissible emissions levels.
Unable to operate at full capacity, and given the lower cost of producing electricity due to an increase in natural gas supplies, the plant’s fate was sealed.
Sadly, our experience with this dirty, outdated plant is not unique. There are more than 200 old power plants like GenOn that are exempt from the Clean Air Act’s requirement to reduce harmful emissions. And efforts by the Obama administration to impose health-based standards for harmful emissions like mercury are being threatened by the current House majority. Just this past session, the Republican-controlled House voted 95 times to weaken the Clean Air Act. I have fought these efforts in Congress and have encouraged other communities to follow Alexandria’s lead in retiring these coal-fired dinosaurs.
Rep. James Moran (D) is Virginia’s 8th Congressional District Representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.