To the Editor:
Last week, Alexandria’s GenOn (formerly Mirant) power plant permanently shut down. How did this happen?
It happened because the city and its citizens were committed and persisted over 11 years to make it happen. And, yes, recent market conditions also contributed to the plant’s demise.
Yet, the story is more complex. Early on, Poul Hertel and I brought to the city’s attention public health issues associated with the facility’s polluting emissions, including producing a report citing health effect studies from those emissions and likely dispersion problems at the plant. We first discussed our concerns with City Councilman Paul Smedberg. Throughout the years, he consistently led the issue with the council as more scientific-based information aggregated, especially the preliminary study demonstrating that the plant was exceeding its permitted sulfur dioxide limit.
Mayor Euille evaluated the developing science base, realized the public health threat to Alexandrians and directed then City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa to pursue the issue. The city Environmental Services Department immediately pushed ahead, determining that a much larger scope of pollutants was affecting Alexandrians’ health.
Meanwhile, concerned residents held a meeting to discuss the plant’s emission effects on public health and, in particular, on those living near the plant. Throughout the 11-year trajectory, a critical mass of citizens wrote letters, attended and spoke at state air board meetings in both Richmond and Alexandria, supporting city staff’s ever developing science and engineering findings regarding the issue.
The city environmental staff’s Bill Skrabak, Lalit Sharma and Khoa Tran maintained their efforts as critical partners. After waiting for late arriving documents, they stayed up all night to prepare for state air board meetings and were in Richmond the next morning, adroitly defending Alexandrians’ health through definitive scientific analyses.
With the mayor’s appointment of the Mirant Community Monitoring Group (MCMG), chaired by council members Del Pepper and Paul Smedberg, the citizen / city alliance continued and investigated ongoing issues of concern with staff, Mirant and Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) representatives.
There were difficulties and disappointments throughout the years. The city, in its attempt to rezone the plant property, lost in court when Mirant sued. The federal Department of Energy, due to needs for electric reliability, ordered the plant to run, even though it was exceeding national environmental standards. We struggled … but we persisted.
There were advances and successes also. The VDEQ mandated the plant to close, based on a scientific study showing the facility’s multiple exceedances of national air quality standards. The City / Mirant Agreement, stipulating that Mirant invest $34 million in pollution controls at the facility, was signed and activated.
So, how did it happen that the GenOn power plant closed last week? Who did it?
We did. Through the committed efforts of Mayor Euille, council members Paul Smedberg and Del Pepper, City Attorneys Ignacio Pessoa and, recently, Chris Spera, the city environmental staff and the Alexandria community, we all did it together.
This long-sought achievement by so many is worth celebrating.