Only a few short weeks ago, I stood on a boat in front of the ancient, dirty, and deadly GenOn coal plant in Alexandria, Virginia, and introduced Michael R. Bloomberg, philanthropist and Mayor of New York City, who then announced a game-changing gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. Today, major news about that notorious plant is breaking — the City of Alexandria and GenOn reached a deal to retire the Potomac River Generating Station by October 1, 2012.   

This filthy coal plant started operating in 1949 and still lacks modern pollution controls, making people sick by spewing coal pollution directly onto neighboring apartment buildings, homes, and businesses.

Today’s announcement is a culmination of many years of hard work by local activists, concerned residents, civic leaders, the Sierra Club, and several allied organizations including Greenpeace, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light.

This agreement between GenOn and the City of Alexandria is a huge step towards moving the nation beyond coal.

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Today’s announcement is a path forward for both Alexandria and the power company that works for everybody, and truly reflects the interest of both parties,” said Alexandria’s Mayor William D. Euille in a news release. “This news strengthens Alexandria’s future and opens the door to an enhanced quality of life for our residents.”

Mayor Euille couldn’t be more correct about quality of life. The Potomac plant is a coal-fired power plant situated on the banks of the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia, directly across — and upwind from — Washington, D.C.’s, Ward 8 community. Recent Sierra Club pollution modeling results demonstrate that unhealthy levels of soot and smog travel downwind from the plant directly into Ward 8, impacting the health and well-being of thousands of D.C. residents both within and beyond the ward.

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Over 400,000 residents in Virginia and Washington D.C. are directly impacted by pollution from the power plant, which according to a Sierra Club Environmental Law Program analysis releases more than 1,400 tons of pollutants into the air annually. This pollution trigger asthma attacks, respiratory illnesses, and contribute to heart disease, cancers and other illness and disease.

We should be clear — there is still a bit more work to do before this deal is completely sealed, as regulators and grid operators will have to approve the agreement, so we will need to keep the pressure on over the coming months to ensure the plant is retired. But we are very, very close to finally getting the relief from coal pollution that this region has long been seeking.

I can still remember standing in front of the coal plant on that July day with Mayor Bloomberg — our eyes were burning from the pollution, and we were sweltering in 100+ degree heat. I remember imagining how angry and scared I would be if I had to raise my young daughter in the shadow of those smokestacks, fearing every day for her health, her life, and her future.

This news will come as a tremendous relief to the families of Alexandria, and will serve as a beacon of hope for dozens of other communities just like it, living on the fence-line of deadly coal plants just like this one. The message is clear — working together, we can move our towns and cities, our states and our nation, beyond coal.  We applaud this decision and the hard work of so many committed residents who want a cleaner, healthier energy future for their community.