On a scorching hot day last July, I stood on the deck of a boat on the Potomac River and introduced Michael R. Bloomberg, philanthropist and mayor of New York City, who was there to announce a game-changing gift to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. Behind us was the notorious, polluting Potomac River coal plant in Alexandria, Va., which the community and elected officials had been trying to retire for years.
Yesterday was finally the last day of operations for the Potomac River coal plant.
Just six weeks after our event with Mayor Bloomberg, the utility that operated the coal plant, GenOn, announced that it would retire the plant. This was welcome news for nearby residents who had been forced to breathe polluted air -- and had been pushing to retire the plant -- for many years.
The plant, located in the heart of a residential area and upwind from Washington, D.C., operated without modern pollution controls and threatened the health of at least 400,000 people with pollution that could trigger asthma attacks, respiratory illnesses, and contribute to heart disease, cancers and other illness and disease. Now that the plant is retiring, there is a lively debate underway about how to best utilize the prime, riverfront real estate that will be available for redevelopment.
As our Virginia organizer Phillip Ellis put it, in this statement for the Sierra Club:
"The Potomac River Coal Plant is a symbol of the change happening across Virginia. Today marks the end of one community's struggle to clean up their air and move away from dangerous fossil fuels such as coal, and an opportunity for Virginia to transition to 21st century clean energy solutions like wind, solar and energy efficiency."
GenOn transferred the vast majority of the plant's 120 workers, and many others chose retirement.
The GenOn coal plant is also a powerful symbol for the nation. In the past two years, 124 coal plants have been announced for retirement, and coal pollution is beginning to plummet as a result, with carbon pollution levels at their lowest levels in two decades.
These 124 retiring coal plants include not only the Potomac River plant, but also Chicago's iconic Fisk and Crawford coal plants, which both burned their last tons of coal just a few weeks ago, after a decade-long fight to retire the plants that was led by neighbors and community leaders.
Clean energy is surging in to fill the gap, with a jaw-dropping 50,000 megawatts of wind now on line -- that equals the generating capacity of 44 coal plants and is enough electricity to power 13 million American homes.
As a mother of a young daughter, I will never forget standing before the Potomac River coal plant, wondering what life was like for the mothers and fathers forced to raise small children in its shadow, worrying every day that their children's health was at risk due to air pollution spewing from the smokestacks.
On that hot July day, I was proud to announce that we would be working even harder to slash coal
pollution. This week, those families will finally breathe cleaner air, and perhaps those moms and dads will be able to worry just a little less. All families across this nation deserve the same -- clean air, clean water, and a nation moving beyond coal.
Follow Mary Anne Hitt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/maryannehitt