In the early 1930’s, construction began on a five unit coal-fired power plant located in Alexandria’s North Old Town area. With its completion in 1954, the impressive facility became one of the hundreds being built at the time to begin generating electricity. By the turn of the century, however, times had changed; environmental regulations were tighter, older coal plants had become inefficient, and the citizens of Alexandria had begun to voice complaints about the Potomac River Generating Station (PRGS). These factors contributed to the decommissioning of the massive power plant in the Fall of 2012. Most citizens of Alexandria know at least this much about the NRG-owned property. What most of Alexandria does not know, however, is the current state of the plant.
To explain this, some background information is required. After the official closure of the plant, the City of Alexandria, NRG, and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) immediately began removing waste and materials from the plant, beginning the process of decommissioning the plant. NRG was responsible for carrying out the process, while the DEQ monitored its progress.
In March of 2013, the efforts being made by NRG came to a screeching halt; in an effort to decommission the two 25,000 gallon tanks of heating oil (petroleum) submerged below the PRGS, the company had filled them with concrete. This was the proper procedure and complied with both city and state regulations. However, only about a month later, traces of petroleum and toxic hydrocarbons were detected in soil and groundwater surrounding the plant. There could only be one explanation for this — the tanks had leaked.
After the DEQ was made aware of the situation by NRG, work immediately began on a Corrective Action Plan (CAP) for the facility. Essentially, this plan would outline the procedures NRG would have to follow in order to remediate the site of the power plant. The plan was submitted to the DEQ by NRG in December of 2014, almost two years after the energy company’s discovery of harmful petroleum and additional substances in the soil and groundwater surrounding the plant. In March of 2015, the CAP was accepted by VDEQ.
In this remedial plan, NRG would install wells surrounding the site in key locations. These wells were placed deep in the ground to monitor levels of contamination and to collect as much of the leaked petroleum as possible. NRG would then describe their findings in quarterly progress reports to the VDEQ.
These reports are available to the public on the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and will continue to be published until the work is complete at the site.
“Until the work is complete” is a general term, and brings up a very important question. When will the processes of remediation at the Potomac River Generating Station finally be complete? According to the Remedial Schedule found on page 40 of NRG’s original CAP, “Closure and well abandonment” was scheduled for 2019. Unfortunately, more recent data suggests a significantly later date for the plant’s final closure.
This is because regardless of how effective the remediation efforts are, significant concentrations of petroleum and pollutants still remain in the soil, groundwater, and air surrounding the generating station. The time needed to complete the remediation process could be anywhere from two to 10 more years.
Why does the PRGS matter?
On June 24 of 2017, City Council approved a new development plan for the North Old Town small area. This plan was drafted by a committee for almost two years, and outlined multiple changes the city intended to make to the North Old Town area. These changes included more green space, better walkability, improved sewer systems, and a focus on mixed land usage with subsidies for the arts and retail.
One factor delays the implementation of this plan — the PRGS makes up almost half of the land area of the North Old Town district. This poses yet another question; when will the North Old Town Small Area Plan be implemented? This is perhaps best answered by a quotation from the original small area plan itself; section 8.1A states that, “The Plan establishes a 25-year framework to guide future planning and development in the plan area in a manner that is consistent with the intent of the Plan and is compatible with the emerging needs of the community and the City.”
The legacy of a coal-fired power plant is one that stays with a city long after it has stopped generating electricity, and Alexandrians should expect many more years with the PRGS before the North Old Town Small Area Plan is complete. In the decades to come, Alexandria should focus on smart and sustainable development plans such as the North Old Town Small Area Plan. Using this strategy, the city can focus on building new structures, not destroying old power plants.