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Power Plant Closure May Improve Arlington’s Air

by ARLnow.com October 2, 2012 at 3:40 pm 4,949 91 Comments

(Updated at 4:15 p.m.) The closure of a power plant in Alexandria may help improve air quality in Arlington.

The GenOn Potomac River Generating Station, a 63-year-old coal-fired power plant on the Potomac River, north of Old Town Alexandria, permanently shut down this week. The plant closed after dogged efforts by local residents and environmental activists, who argued the 482-megawatt plant was harming local air quality and endangering residents.

The Washington Post called the plant the “largest single source of air pollution in the Washington region.” The plant’s smokestacks emitted fine particulate matter and sulfur dioxide, occasionally at levels that could temporarily harm sensitive individuals, according to a recent air quality study.

Jeff Harn, the Bureau Chief of Arlington’s Office of Sustainability and Environmental Management, said the plant’s closure is a positive development for local air quality.

“I think generally it’s a good thing,” he told ARLnow.com. “We sort of look at that plant as a regional source of air pollution. It affects the whole region. [The closure] would be beneficial, I’m sure.”

At a press conference on Monday, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said the closing of the plant will benefit the health of local residents.

“Today marks the conclusion of a long fought but well won victory for Northern Virginia residents and the health of citizens in the National Capital Region,” he said. “What once was the largest stationary source of air pollution in the metro area will be no more. With the extinction of this dinosaur, our air will be cleaner. As much as 600,000 fewer tons of carbon dioxide, 1.9 million lbs of nitrogen oxide, and 325,000 lbs of sulfur dioxide will be in the air we breathe.”

Harn said the areas closest to the plant — parts of Alexandria, as well as parts of South Arlington and Crystal City — should see some air quality improvement as a result of the plant’s closure. D.C. should also benefit, he said, as prevailing winds often carried the plant’s emissions across the Potomac and into the District.

Since there is not much heavy industry in the area, Harn says most of the air pollution in the D.C. area is transportation-related — from sources like cars, buses and airplanes.

Flickr pool photo by Afagen

  • SHLady

    What’s going to happen to the building?

  • YTK

    I wonder if it will have to be environmentally cleaned up before anything else gets done to it.

  • MC 703

    Glad it’s closing. I live within sight of this thing and can’t wait for the deliciously clean air.

    The really sad thing is that the site is basically a super-fund site. No chance of redevelopment or reclamation as a park or green space I hear. What a shame. Beautiful river shore. Ruined.

    • malaka

      It is not actually a superfund site and given the prim riverfront location I am sure it will be redeveloped into some ultra expensive real estate

    • Chris M.

      If it was such bad air quality, then why did you move there?

      I would like to thank the plants owners for generating decades of reliable power for the area. Maybe this plant’s time had come, but you folks who are happy because of the new clean air revolution that is coming are ridiculous. The marginal impact on your air quality was very close to zero.

      Let’s turn off all these coal power plants and see how long before the area’s gadget reliant, a/c using, “environmentalists” start complaining. People always want to complain about things without ever considering real tradeoffs. It was funny that when the power went out a while back my “green” friends were the first to book hotel rooms.

      • answerman

        many people are attempting to use electricity. There is a big difference between making electricity more expensive and incenting less use, and cutting it all off in a blackout.

        And note, the low price of natural gas is doing more to kill coal than the greens are.

      • drax

        Bull. The impact on air quality was well-documented.

        Nobody is proposing turning off all coal plants, just this one. Save your silly agenda for a place where it is actually relevant.

      • MC 703

        Chris – You’re right. I must have been dreaming when WJLA did a story on the black dust that falls around the power plant.

        Coal plant emissions are dispersed by the wind. This isn’t just a victory for close neighbors, it’s a victory for all of us. Even you when the wind is blowing your way.

  • Jim

    why question is — will this increase my electricity prices?

    • Courtlander

      Likely answer is that it WILL increase your electricity cost due to increased transmission distance to power Alexandria area, but notice the headline say it MAY improve air quality.

      • Josh S

        Isn’t (likely*will) the same as (may)?

        Plus or minus 5%?

      • Eric

        My understanding is that this plant sent all of its power across the river to Washington DC. Shutting it down doesn’t affect electric rates in Virginia.

        • Mary-Austin

          You’re right.
          This isn’t a Dominion plant and Dominion has a monopoly in Virginia. The pro-coal people won’t let facts get in the way though.

      • Id

        So you can suck in the air as you hyperventilate after reading the dollar amount of your electric bill. Obama did meet one campaign promise — high energy costs.

  • Smithers

    Dang liberals getting in the way of business and ruining the economy!!! AND FOR WHAT????

    Clean air. Oh, so we can breathe. I see hmmmm….

    Dang commies if you don’t like the air then move to Canada blah blah blah.

    • novasteve

      You can’t do hydoelectric because of the snail darter… Wind turbines? Could harm bats… So taking away power sources and notn replacing them helps who exactly? And I’m sure all the unemployed people in W. Va must be ecstatic about coal mines closing.

      • Josh S

        Generally, you can find individual examples to support just about anything you want.

        However, I wonder what the folks in Oregon and Washington, where they get 50% plus of their power from hydroelectric plants would say to your claim that “you can’t do hydroelectric?”

        Last I checked, the destruction of entire mountaintops by the coal industry in WV was proceeding pretty well unabated. Besides, I wonder about the societal tradeoff – some poorly paid dangerous mining jobs for a few years or streams, forests, and mountain ridges ruined forever?

      • answerman

        installed wind generation is growing steadily, but in fact the fastest growing source of electric power is natural gas.

      • drax

        Um, yeah, we can do hydroelectric, steve. And wind. We do all that now.

      • Mike

        As I understand it, the problem with hydroelectric generation is not the snail darter, but the fact that it is mostly tapped out. As others have pointed out, hydroelectric is widely used, and accounts for significant amounts of the electricity used in some parts of the country (add New York State to that list – Niagara Falls is a huge source of power). But there aren’t many places left where we can generate hydroelectric power but are not already doing so.
        It looks like natural gas is what is going to replace coal, and that’s a good thing – it’s much cleaner than coal, it is produced in the US by American workers, and we have huge reserves of it.

        • Quoth the Raven

          All sources of energy should be looked at. Natural gas might be “better” than coal, but it’s a relative thing, isn’t it? Cleaner energies are out there (wind, solar, wave, etc) and with the appropriate investment can become economically viable. Nuclear too, for that matter. But with every type of power you have drawbacks, as Steve points out. Some are minor (snail darter example is somewhat silly – that was in one dam years and years ago) but some are more serious (meltdown). It becomes a balance. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Sticking our heads in the sand and sticking with conventional sources is not going to help us in the future.

        • answerman

          some states import hydro power from Quebec

    • answerman

      given the cost of health care, there are economic benefits to reducing pulmonary illness.

      • B.H. Obama

        Don’t worry about the cost of health care, I’ve got that covered. TRUST ME!

        • Interesting

          Excuse me, Mr. President. I need some more minutes for my phone.

          • Id

            Obama phone!

        • drax

          Yep. Your plan will certainly cost us less than letting millions go uninsured and then the taxpayers and insured people having to cover them anyway in emergency rooms when they are much sicker.

  • South Awwlington

    What’s going to happen to the employees?

    • answerman

      accordintg to WaPo most have either transferred to other facilities or acccept early retirement. There are maybe two who are looking for new jobs.

  • AlexandriaMegg

    Thank the lord! My office is literally right next to this place and it’s such an eyesore not to mention the impact on the environment. I hate running past it on the Mount Vernon trail thinking about all the fumes I’m probably breathing in! Hopefully they can turn it into something nice. That area of old town could use some more development in my opinion!

    • Runner

      You could run somewhere else if you’re so terribly concerned.

    • Interesting

      Oh yeah, the Mount Vernon trail which runs right past DCA and 395. I’m sure your air will be pristine now.

      • 1RLI

        Touché!

    • Rick

      It’s still not gonna fix the smell of the river

  • I’d be curious to know how this loss of production will be picked up/offset by other plants in the area.

    • that’s what she said

      As a matter of fact that’s already happened. The plant fed the DC/maryland grid, and upgrades there the past few years made this plant unnecessary. Once upon a time it was a PEPCo plant.

      • brown before green

        True dat!

    • Matty

      It won’t be – they just decided out of the blue, “Know what? Lets just shut this thing down, and not bother telling anybody or putting any kind of plan in place. We’ll just see what happens…”

      You don’t think any drop in production wasn’t already thought out years ago (when this plant was already a dinosaur)?

  • gnushell

    I had to move from Del Ray because of this place. I’m extremely sulfite (sulfur dioxide) sensitive and was very ill the entire time I lived there. It actually cost me a job and once almost my life.

    After moving, I rode my bike on the trail and once I hit the upwind section started coughing. Prior to Mirant being told to clean the sulfur particulate the numbers where off the chart.

    So happy that they are finally gone!

  • DCBuff

    Years ago, I used to live off Slaters Ln and would wake up in the a.m. to a fine layer of black dust on my car. Lovely.

    • Harlan County

      When are they going to shut down the US Capitol coal power plant at NJ Ave.? Im still finding a fine layer of smut on my prius everyday.

      • brown before green

        Thanks for asking… they’re converting that to natural gas. So, soon your Prius will be dust-free. As for smut, that’s your call.

  • Earth Mover

    I work at the waste water treatment plant across the river. Air still smells like crap over here.

    • BrownClown

      Which Metro line carries the greatest volume?
      The Brown line to Blue Plains.

    • CircleOfLife

      *golf clap* Smelling soot would be an improvement while driving out of DC on 295 past Blue Plains

  • JimPB

    ISO the whole story:
    Where will the electric power come that used to come from this local power plant?
    What will provide the power for generating electricity?
    What are the environmental impacts at the replacement power plant(s)?

    • Michael H.

      According to the Potomac River Green site, studies have already indicated that the GenOn plant is unnecessary to maintain power reliability for the region. Make of that what you will.

    • answerman

      coal has a hard time competing with Natural Gas these days. And the more efficient coal plants are newer and larger than this. This was being used just for peak power, where Nat Gas is particularly efficient.

      New Nat Gas plants will have less green house gases per BTU than coal, of course new plants will not be located in places quite as dense as this.

    • brown before green

      Jim,
      Michael and answerman are correct. There will be no ill effect on the power grid in DC/Maryland, they are covered by other existing plants, and therefore there are no impacts of replacement plants.
      Keep calm and carry on.

  • TJLinBallston

    DARPA was built on superfund site; it’s 100% do-able riverfront enclave that could expand Old Town’s reach and depth.

    • joey zaza

      Minor correction. DARPA was not built on a superfund site.

      • Frog

        Right. The site was contaminated from use as the bus garage, but not a full on “Superfund” site.

        • SuperFun Guy

          What is a “full on” Superfund site??? A site is either listed on EPA’s National Priorities List or it’s not. If it’s not on the NPL, EPA can’t use Superfund dollars to clean it up.

          • drax

            He means not a Superfund site, as in not a “full on” hazard that would qualify it for the Superfund.

  • Michael H.

    The Alexandria city council will be discussing zoning of the site in the near future. Nothing has been decided yet.

    However, there have been some proposals for the site, including the Potomac River Green plan:

    http://www.potomacrivergreen.com/

    The group wants to include a natural gas refueling station (or at least they did in the past) along with commercial, residential and retail buildings on the site. This group does not have any rights to develop the property. The council members might be influenced by the proposal or they could ignore it completely.

    • Observer

      Who owns the land under the plant?

      • James

        Ownership of the plant shouldn’t be an obstacle to redevelopment. The owner would probably give away the land if someone else would pick up the cost of remediation.

        • Observer

          Who is going to demo the structures?

      • Patawomeck

        We do

        • Id

          Ah, a fellow Stone Cutter

      • answerman

        I beleive genon has 88 years to go on their lease, with the underlying owner being another utility (Dominion?)

        A developer would buy the leasehold from Genon, and the (probably less valuable) underlying land from whoever owns it. And yeah, the cost of remediation would mean Genon would get a lot less $$.

        • John F

          PEPCO owns the land under the GenOn plant, and GenOn leases.

  • YTK

    it would be nice if they would PLANT something green, in place of this toxic plant.

  • John Fontain

    I’m just glad the pollution from this plant will now be spewed on poor people in West Virginia so that I can continue to charge my iPad and have the clean air that I deserve.

    • Willard Romney

      They already have black lung anyway from working the mines.

    • brown before green

      Categorically not true.

      • Debs

        Look at RESEARCH…Hendryx papers from UWV….mining communities are far poorer and sicker due to the mining pollution and economic depression that only one main employer provides…the “company store” type of situation.

        • brown before green

          I don’t doubt that West Virginians’ health suffers greatly from coal burning and coal mining and groundwater damage from that mining. I was countering Fountain’s presumption that closing the GenOn plant meant more pollution from WV coal plants. As has been discussed elsewhere on this board, improvements in the transmission system and new gas-fired generation have made the GenOn plant uneconomical and redundant, in addition to politically unviable. It is a dirty plant, grandfathered for many years, with inadequate emission controls. The whole east coast is cleaner now.

  • roquer

    Guess they all forgot about Blue Plains in the District. WhatEVER this place gives out, drive past Blue Plains on ANY given summer day and compare for yourself.

  • Just Me

    I feel bad for the people that lost their jobs. So Jim Moran, how are you going to help them?

  • Smitty

    Great place to put a Walmart. Or a Target to replace the Potomac Yard one once it’s torn down.

    • TargetLover

      Why would they tear that one down?

      • Smitty

        The whole shopping center is slated to be redeveloped/torn down when the new Metro station is finalized. It was only intended to be a temporary strip mall, but they had not idea how wildly successful it would be. I believe that Target has the highest “numbers” of any on the east coast, perhaps nationwide.

        • drax

          The developers knew exactly how successful it would be – they duped the city, hoping nobody would remember that it was supposed to be temporary, or wonder why we should tear down a perfectly good strip mall anyway.

          • confused

            was there ever a plan to tear it down PRIOR to building the metro station?

            If its not as temporary as one would like, is that not because its taken so long to line up the metro project?

        • TargetLover

          Wow thanks. That’s really interesting. I’ve only lived in the area a few months and having all that literally across the street is really convenient!

          • drax

            That’s exactly what the developers were hoping for – people who didn’t know it was supposed to be temporary and got to love the convenience.

            I predict that at least part of it isn’t torn down at all.

  • John F

    Let it be stated that, while the politicians and activists are high-fiving over their “triumph,” GenOn has said consistently–including during a tour I took there with a group one year ago–that the real reason they’re closing is economic: Coming EPA restrictions that the aged plant cannot meet. GenOn had tried by installing scrubbers and using trona mineral powder to cut the pollution, but the EPA kept raising the requirements and outpaced this old plant’s ability to be affordably kept current. It was less costly to just close the plant.

    At the same time, there’s been no news-media mentions of the railroad that served the plant. For the record, it was built in 1859 as the Alexandria, Loudoun & Hampshire, with a station in north Old Town, and extended to the Blue Ridge. Yankees and Confederates fought a battle around one of its trains, the engineer of which ran it backward to Alexandria as fast as he could. Around 1900 it was acquired by the Southern Rwy, which then leased and later sold all but this last mile to the W&OD. The last mile remained Southern, then Norfolk Southern. Before the plant closed NS had two customers on the line, GenOn and Robinson Terminal. Now there’s only one, and it will eventually be demolished and developed by its owner, The Washington Post. And that will be the end for this last mile of a historic old rail line.

    • Interesting

      Thanks for the interesting information. Pretty soon it will all be forgotten history.

    • Id

      I love the history.

  • GodFila

    Closing down the comments section would also significantly improve Arlington’s air…. not to mention mitigation of global warming (for the 99% out there this pun alludes to all of the hot air being generated).

    • WeiQiang

      this conjures up an image of all the ArlNow personalities actually speaking their posts as they sit behind their computer screens, as if it will sound more reasonable if they also hear it.

      Me? I’m sticking to methane production.

      • GodFila

        I’ll stick to my porcelain plated keyboard…

  • JnA

    Jim Moran and Del Pepper approved the last expansion of the present GenOn, former PEPCO, generating plant in 1989, over the vocal objections of the neighborhood associations.

    Moran and Pepper regularly accepted capaign contributions from PEPCO when PEPCO owned the generating station.

  • Hank

    Love all the conjecture in a science based story.

    “Power Plant Closure May Improve Arlington’s Air” It may decrease the quality of Arlington’s Air if other dirtier plants produce the electricity we still use, but I guess it s not in our backyard so it is better.

    Residents and activists arguing that the plant was harming local air quality. I’m sure they are un-biased.

    “I think generally it’s a good thing,” “We sort of look at that plant as a regional source of air pollution.” Real convistion there. I think, and we sort of look, The only difference closign this plant makes is that the pollution wil be generated in a different region. NIMBY.

    Any bets how much the rates will increase since our electricity will be generated in someone else’s back yard.

    • drax

      In general, the plants that will replace this will be cleaner, because natural gas is cheaper and wind power is growing. And the power plants will be far from Arlington anyway. Transferring the pollution elsewhere makes sense because there are fewer people to affect and less pollution to begin with, since we have horrible air quality already from cars.

      Residents and activists cited objective data to support their claims. They didn’t just point to the air.

      The power from this plant didn’t go to Virginia, it went to DC and Maryland. Our rates will not increase.

      • Arl2

        Will the natural gas displacing the energy from this plant come from fracking in the Magellan shale reserves? Then you trade off clean air for clean water. Not better in my opinion. You can improve coal power generating plants and get cleaner air. Once the aquifer is poisoned by chemicals, it is gone forever. Watch Gasland. Companies are exempt from the Clean Water Act in the fracking process.

  • YTK

    “Since there is not much heavy industry in the area, Harn says most of the air pollution in the D.C. area is transportation-related — from sources like cars, buses and airplanes.”
    how true– I see the brown haze of pollution hovering over 295 every morning — closing the coal-fired plant is great but it won;t stop that.

  • Ted

    According to Virginia Power’s own data, enclosed with my electric bill a couple months ago, 38% of our electric power comes from burning coal, 17% from burning natural gas, and 42% from nuclear. Much of the ‘renewable’ energy Virgina Power generates comes from burning biomass.

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