Pepco Dismantling Benning Road Power Plant

Our River - the Anacostia

Mist gun used to control dust from the plant demolition

Here in the city, we are used to seeing additions to our skyline, but seldom do we watch a piece of it being removed.  Yet that is what is underway along our Anacostia River at Benning Road, where the old (1906) Benning Power Plant is being demolished.  The best views of this major undertaking are from the River or the Metro Orange Line between Stadium/Armory and Minnesota Avenue Stations.

PEPCO Energy Services closed the plant’s two remaining oil-fired generators in 2012 and recently decided that demolishing the plant, which covers a quarter of the 77 acres that make up the Benning Service Center, would be in everyone’s best interest.  PEPCO plans to use the land to expand its Service Center activities, which include electric distribution and transmission reliability.

For most us who like to use the River, ridding the landscape of the grim facades and  stacks of the old plant will mark an improvement.  It will also reward hikers and bikers with more views of nature along the new section of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail now under construction between Benning Road and the Bladensburg Marina in Maryland.  This long-awaited trail will link the trails along the tidal river with the system of streamside trails in Montgomery and Prince Georges County, giving us one of the longest systems of interconnected urban trails in America. And it will pass right in front of the site of the old power plant.

GONE (almost)

The demolition is well underway.  Before anything else, all asbestos and other potentially hazardous building materials were carefully removed and disposed of. Then the two cooling towers were dismantled and removed; they included lots of   plastic, fiberglass and wood.  Conventional demolition of the main structures is now underway. The next phase, scheduled for December, will be implosion of the stacks and remaining heavy steel structures.  This will be, according to PEPCO, “a one-time event lasting up to five minutes with public notifications and considerable planning, monitoring, safety measures and dust containment.”  There will be plenty of public notice and engagement of DC police and fire officials.

The final phase of the demolition will be to grade, level and restore the site for use by the expanded Service Center.

Further details about the demolition, including public meetings, fact sheets and frequently asked questions can be found on-line at  HYPERLINK "http://www.benningservicecenter.com" www.benningservicecenter.com and at the following libraries: Anacostia, Deanwood, Dorothy Height/Benning, Francis A. Gregory and Rosedale.

But Not Forgotten

While the plant may disappear, its legacy of toxic contamination to the land, the stream banks and the river will be with us for many more years. This is a much more complex set of issues and, while the solution is coming, it will take more time to clean it all up for the benefit of the Anacostia and all of us.

First of all, the power plant is just one of several potential sites for toxics in the immediate area; for years the District dumped and burned trash along the river just upstream of the power plant.  So the toxics analysis of the PEPCO plant will include the current DC solid waste transfer station and the National Park Service Kenilworth Maintenance Yard.

Second the power plant is one of six major facilities along the river where toxic pollution is said to have occurred in the past; these include the Navy Yard, a Washington Gas facility near Capitol Hill and the CSX rail yard in Anacostia.  All of these are in various stages of investigations that will lead to clean-ups under Superfund.  The PEPCO plant is not formally a Superfund site, but is the subject of a judicial consent decree that treats it virtually the same.

Third, there is a large reservoir of toxic sediments in the bottom of the river as a result of all this and other contamination over the years.  The DC government has undertaken a major effort with EPA to carry out the studies to develop a plan to clean these up.  The City Council recently set a date of 2018 to complete the planning and begin the cleanup.

So the PEPCO plant is part of a larger history of contamination along the river, and there is under way a program and a plan to deal with all the sources.  According to the DC Government, the Benning Road power plant was the source of six documented releases of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), a known cancer-causing toxic, into the environment between 1985 and 2003.  A 2008 EPA study linked PCB’s and other toxics in Anacostia sediments to discharges from the site.  

All this led to the consent decree under which DC and PEPCO Energy Services are carrying out a multi-year study and clean-up for toxics that may be on the site, in the soils along the river, and in the river sediments and surface water.  The effort has four parts.  

The names given the first two parts are Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study, sometimes referred to as an “RI/FS.”  The Remedial Investigation is to determine historic toxic releases from the site to the River water or sediments and any ongoing pollution.  The Feasibility Study determines what clean-up actions are needed and how they should be done.  PEPCO is then responsible to pay the cost of any clean-up related to the power plant site.

Field work related to the RI/FS is to be completed this year.  The District Department of the Environment (DDOE) expects to approve the final RI/FS by late 2015 or early 2016.  A Proposed Plan of actions is scheduled for early 2017 and the final Record of Decision setting out what must be done should be ready by 2018.   Then the actual clean-up of what the plant left behind will begin. While this seems to be a very lengthy schedule, experience has shown that the issues are complex and the remedies are not self-evident. Plus it all must be coordinated with remediation at the other sites and the removal or capping of contaminated sediments in the River.  More information about all this is available on the Benning Service Center website.

So the good news is that the power plant will be out of our sight very soon!  And the new trail will be opened in a year or so. But despite the best efforts of EPA, the DCDOE and Pepco Energy Services, the legacy of the Benning Road Power Plant’s toxics will be with us for a while.  2018 seems a long way off and 2025, the goal for a swimmable Anacostia, even further.  But when we consider they are only as far ahead as 2010 and 2003 are behind us, it gives us some hope we may see the day!

Demolition Underway at the Benning Road PEPCO Plant. Photos: Rick Giammaria. Courtesy of Pepco Holdings, Inc.
Map of demolition: Area in green underway; area in red to be imploded in December

Bill Matuszeski writes about the environment, with a focus on the Anacostia.  He was Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program from 1991 to 2001, and currently serves as Chair of the Anacostia Watershed Citizens Advisory Committee.