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Environmentalists Differ On Alexandria Coal-Fired Power Plant

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This rendering shows one proposal for the revitalization of the Potomac River Generating Plant site. The plant's owner, GenOn, has agreed to shut down the plant by 2012.
American Clean Skies Foundation
This rendering shows one proposal for the revitalization of the Potomac River Generating Plant site. The plant's owner, GenOn, has agreed to shut down the plant by 2012.

Environmentalists in Virginia are divided over what should happen to millions of dollars that have been set aside to clean up a coal-fired power plant on the waterfront in Alexandria.

There's $32 million set aside to reduce particulate matter emitted by the Potomac River Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant originally constructed in 1949.

The funding is part of a settlement agreement between the city of Alexandria and the plant's former owner, Mirant, now called GenOn.

Now that officials are about to award a contract for the plant's improvements, a group funded by the natural gas industry has come forward with a proposal to divert the $32 million from cleaning up the existing plant to shutting it down, and preparing the site for potential development. Some environmentalists are skeptical about the motives.

"This is really not about the environment," says Elizabeth Chimento, who is part of a monitoring group that closely watches what happens at the plant.

She says it's about money.

"In the end, environment is not the primary focus," Chimento says. "The primary focus is for the gas industry to surmount the coal-powered industry."

That may be so, says Ernie Lehman, who has been working to close the plant for a decade.

But he adds, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

In other words, just because the plan to divert the $32 million came from the natural gas industry doesn't mean it should be abandoned. Others say that would be a big mistake because nobody knows when the plant will close.

“For us to jeopardize our health one minute more is unreasonable, he says.

The Sierra Club sides with the American Clean Skies Foundation, a group with close ties to the natural gas industry.

"This is a 62-year-old plant," says spokesman Nick Sifuentes. "That’s retirement age for people, and it's long past retirement age for these kinds of plants."

Next month, the city is expected to announce the contractor that's been selected to install the $32 million worth of improvements.

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