Georgetown University’s sturdy presence dominates the neighborhood that shares its name. The 204-year-old school just can’t be avoided: From Healy Hall’s Romanesque spire to the area’s student-clogged streets, the university proclaims itself from every corner, every angle of the village-within-a-city that Georgetown has come to be.
But Georgetown University does more than physically daunt local residents. With all the presumption of a monarch, the university lords over the hamlet, flexing its considerable political influence and economic resources to get its way. So in 1987, when the university contracted with Dominion Energy (a subsidiary of Dominion Resources, Virginia Power’s corporate parent) to replace the school’s aging, coal-burning steam boiler with a modern, natural gas- and oil-fired cogeneration plant, the school thought of itself first—and the community hardly at all.
The deal Dominion offered was sweet: The power company would write Georgetown University a check for $1 million for the right to build the power plant on campus. The school would buy—at a discount—all the steam it needed to heat and cool its buildings. With the new plant’s formidable capacity, Dominion would also generate 56 megawatts of electric power that it would sell to Pepco and feed into the utility’s power grid via existing power lines.
Since Dominion promised that the plant would cut air pollution and solid waste while conserving fuel, the plan made environmental sense. The university even anticipated that the plant would resolve a simmering neighborhood conflict: The school planned to spend its cogeneration windfall on additional on-campus student housing. The new dorms would pen noisy students within the school’s gates—and excise them from group houses in Georgetown and Burleith.
But instead of being a regulatory cakewalk, the cogeneration deal set off a town-gown war that has cost the plant’s proponents more than $12 million in legal bills, lobbyists’ fees, and technical studies; roiled the political waters of Capitol Hill and the District Building; and inadvertently organized the residents of Georgetown, Burleith, Foxhall Village, Hillandale, Glover Park, and Palisades into a well-organized, dogged campaign against the university’s power play.
Part of the community opposition to the plant can be attributed to standard not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) sentiments, in which the privileged middle and upper classes demand all the amenities of modern technology (like a reliable and cheap source of electric power), but adamantly refuse to suffer the most minor aesthetic inconvenience.
But like most feuds, this Georgetown/Georgetowner clash has a history of scrapes, bruised feelings, unreasonable expectations, and refusals by either side to play fair or compromise.
The battle of the megawatts was joined in early 1991, when the university and its allies began hurdling the zoning and regulatory obstacles to constructing the new facility. But today, despite its 19 zoning, regulatory, and judicial approvals, the power plant may be a lost cause. Like the British Army during the Revolutionary War, Georgetown University and Dominion may win every battle and still lose the war. The determined residents of Georgetown have fought the school and the power companies to a stalemate: Almost 18 months after Dominion and Georgetown University expected the plant to be blowing steam and pumping juice, the project languishes between life and death, just a single D.C. Council vote or mayoral decision away from its demise.
Georgetown University administrators, obsessed as they are with building their plant, still can’t fathom the community opposition.
“We have gone through the extra reviews. We have gone through processes that are not required for the governance of this city,” says Gary Krull, Georgetown University’s associate vice president for public relations and publications. “Yet a small, small core group continues to…issue accusations and charges that are totally unsubstantiated.”
“This project is good,” Krull says. “We sat back and said the process would prove us to be correct. And the process has proven us to be correct. The qualified experts have ruled and the qualified experts have said, “You’re OK, go forward.’ And every time we have gotten to that point, the opponents have changed the target.”
But Georgetown University’s professed devotion to the principles of “process” doesn’t impress the opponents of the facility.
“Georgetown [University] is used to getting its way,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who opposes the project. “In the past, what Georgetown wanted, Georgetown got….They’re not used to being an institution that shares with the community.”
“A lot of people have been looking at the university with new eyes. Frankly, before this, we never paid attention,” says plant foe Virginia Mead. “Like most people, I think that people with a religious orientation are more kindly toward the people around them, and that they would not let their financial needs outweigh their humanitarian outlook. And it’s been very distressing to find that they have feet of clay.”
The university squandered its moral authority with its pushy behavior. It has mailed misleading letters to the community, refused to make relevant documents public, employed powerful lawyers to manipulate the approval process, and lobbied for congressional interference in a local matter—a cardinal sin against home rule. Misstep by misstep, Georgetown University and Dominion Energy have alienated the very community whose support they needed.
But rooting for the opposition is no easier. In a grass-roots fashion that would make Saul Alinsky proud, they have mobilized themselves into an effective ad hoc group known as the Citizens Coalition. Led by ANC (Advisory Neighborhood Commission) Commissioners Westy McDermid and Dianne Sawaya, attorney Mallory Duncan, and Robert and Virginia Mead, the coalition has deep community support. Thousands of Georgetown and Palisades residents have signed anti-plant petitions, and they pack community meetings on the issue. If they were fighting poverty or censorship, these citizens would stand as a democratic example to us all. Instead, their crusade is to freeze Georgetown in time, imagining its natural state to be a postcard-perfect picture of town houses and cobblestone streets, and forgetting that for most of this century, Georgetown has been a diverse neighborhood, an urban stew of upscale and downscale, mansions and, yes, smokestacks.
The residents barely acknowledge the financial pressures on the university, and they ignore the metropolitan area’s interest in efficient, clean power production. The plant would be an environmental improvement over the current facility, yet the community activists have promulgated “scientific” objections to the dangers posed by the plant and its high-voltage power lines that border on the demagogic. Having exhausted nearly all legitimate appeals before the dozen boards, commissions, and courts with authority in the case, the activists continue to stall the project with their protests.
“I think the opposition enjoys the fight,” says Ted Jacobs, an ANC commissioner who favors the plant. “Georgetown is big and powerful. I call it pulling the tiger’s tail.”
“This is a disaster,” says Councilmember Evans. “This issue has taken up an enormous amount of my time, of lawyers’ time, of the residents’ time, of Georgetown’s time, of Dominion’s time, and it needs to be resolved. This is an example of a process gone amok.”
The sad truth of the cogenerator controversy is that neither side deserves to win.
Georgetown University began exploring the power business in 1983, when it added an experimental cogenerator to its campus steam boilers. A cogenerator is simply a dressed-up power plant that harnesses the excess steam from boilers to generate electricity. The technology is efficient and cheap because it makes use of energy that would otherwise be wasted. Georgetown’s pilot cogenerator made a piddling 2.8 megawatts of electricity, about a tenth of the university’s peak-power demand. But for a brief period in 1987, the cogenerator’s current was fed into the Pepco power grid, proving the feasibility of commercial cogeneration to the university.
Congress had paved the way to commercial cogeneration during the bleak days of the energy crisis, when it passed the 1978 Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA). Simultaneously a conservation measure and a deregulatory act, PURPA encouraged industrial plants to save fuel by installingcogenerators. PURPA also created competition for the monopoly power utilities, albeit a very small amount of competition, by requiring them to purchase electricity from cogenerators at their “avoided cost”—the cost for the utilities to produce that electricity themselves.
PURPA exceeded its framers’ most optimistic projections. Hundreds of cogen plants were built, and they now produce 309 million megawatt-hours of electricity—about 10 percent of America’s power needs. PURPA also helped to convert the complacent utilities into entrepreneurial companies, as they launched unregulated subsidiaries such as Dominion Energy: The subsidiaries erect cogen plants—usually outside their parent company’s monopoly territory—and sell power to the local utility. Most cogen plants serve industrial sites of the chemical and timber industries, but several dozen universities, including Harvard, Stanford, and Ohio State, saw the light and entered the electricity biz.
PURPA delighted conservationists by converting wasted energy into electric power, reducing pollution and conserving fossil fuels. As Gregg Easterbrook writes in the July ®MDUL¯Atlantic®MDNM¯, cogeneration gave power companies the market incentives they needed to build economical power plants. Suddenly, many of the mega-power plants on their drawing boards were no longer financially attractive. As scores of such proposed plants were canceled around the country, local NIMBY activists celebrated.
You’ve probably never noticed Georgetown’s existing steam plant. Squatting just east of McDonough gymnasium and half embedded in a hillside, the plant is a windowless lump of brick and metal surrounded by scraggly trees, fill dirt, and a trailer that serves as Dominion’s headquarters. This plant contains an elderly coal boiler, two aging gas/oil boilers, several cooling towers, and the experimental cogenerator, now idle. It’s ugly, but it provides all of the university’s heating and cooling.
Emboldened by the modest success of its experimental cogenerator, Georgetown University hoped to upgrade its venerable plant. The university asked independent energy companies to submit proposals for a commercial plant. The school assumed—correctly, as it turned out—that zoning officials would approve a sizable facility for the campus. After all, the new cogenerator would simply add floor space, equipment, and a smokestack to the existing plant. In 1987, Georgetown University signed a contract with Dominion Energy.
In July 1990, the D.C. Public Service Commission approved a “Power Purchase Agreement” between Dominion and Pepco that would permit the cogenerator to sell power into the Pepco grid. That September, the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment approved the cogenerator plan “in concept” along with the school’s evolving campus plan. By late 1990, Dominion had brought the project into compliance with federal law, which prohibits one company from owning more than 50 percent of a cogenerator project, by enlisting TriStar Ventures, a subsidiary of Delaware-based Columbia Gas System, as an equal partner in the enterprise.
The cogenerator made fiscal sense for the university and the power companies. Besides receiving the one-time payment of $1 million from Dominion/TriStar, the school could count on annual savings of about $800,000 in steam-energy costs. The new plant would also relieve Georgetown University of the $11 million expense of refurbishing its old steam plant. Pepco was a winner in the deal, too, gaining new power capacity at no capital cost to itself. Dominion/TriStar would do best of all: The joint venture stood to collect between $1 million and $2 million per month from Pepco for the next 25 years, and it would rake in millions more from steam sales to the university.
Dominion/TriStar christened the project the Georgetown Cogeneration Limited Partnership—deliberately masking the fact that Georgetown University owned ®MDUL¯none®MDNM¯ of it, plant critics say. The university did preserve the title to the land and the building, which conveniently exempted the facility from property taxes, but under the terms of the agreement, the power company partnership would build and operate the plant, own the hardware, purchase the fuel, and employ the workers.
“Dominion looked at this project and everything about it was positive,” says Dominion project manager Ronald Usher. “Some other projects we’ve done have had net negatives. In this one, every way we looked at it—environment, engineering, finance—there were no adverse elements.”
The legal marathon between the people of Georgetown and the power plant hit its full stride in the summer of 1991, when Dominion won final approval from the BZA for the cogeneration plant—one of several “final” approvals in this process that wasn’t final. Plant opponents like Mallory Duncan, pro bono attorney for the nascent Citizens Coalition, accused Georgetown University of purposely downplaying the size of the plant and concealing relevant details about the business relationships of the project. The coalition promptly sued in the D.C. Court of Appeals to void the BZA ruling, and has been suing, protesting, and lobbying against the plant ever since.
In February 1992, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) approved the air-quality permit for the plant, essentially allowing it to discharge a specific amount of pollution into the atmosphere; plant opponents objected. When the Public Service Commission gave its final approval to the Pepco/Dominion electricity deal that same month, the coalition resisted again. In late 1992, when the BZA approved the developers’ minor modifications to the power plant, the opponents filed another Court of Appeals suit.
The developers thought the marathon was finally over in February 1993, when the Court of Appeals shot down the Citizens Coalition’s 1991 suit, upholding the BZA’s “final” approval. That same month, the BZA’s zoning administrator signed the building permit.
The Fine Arts Commission, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Historic Preservation Review Board, and even the Old Georgetown Board have all given the plant a thumbs-up. Of 19 regulatory and legal approvals, all but one have been unanimous. Government agencies have signed off on air emissions, smokestack design, plant engineering, health risk assessment, power purchase agreement, and even brick color. Georgetown University and Dominion Energy submitted Environmental Impact Statements, Supplemental Environmental Impact Statements, expert testimony, petitions, letters of support, and every document an agency has requested.
“You can’t find a case where we have circumvented anything,” says plant project manager Usher. “We have crossed every ®MDUL¯t®MDNM¯, and dotted every ®MDUL¯i®MDNM¯.”
But the Citizens Coalition still refuses to surrender. Three months ago, it introduced public health and environmental objections to the project’s oil tanks, natural-gas line, and, especially, the high-voltage power lines that would carry the cogen’s juice from the campus, through the residential Palisades neighborhood, to a utility substation near Sibley Hospital. These complaints were validated by Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who in July 1993 ordered the DCRA to conduct an additional study on these health and environmental risks. The agency’s findings are due this month. With its usual optimism, Dominion believes that DCRA will dismiss the public health objections and issue the ®MDUL¯final®MDNM¯ final building permits this fall.
Don’t count on it. Rebuffed by the regulators, shunned by the zoners, and rejected by the judges, the Citizens Coalition has now turned to the politicians, certain that the D.C. Council will ban the plant and its high-voltage power lines. Only peripherally involved in the struggle during its early years, Councilmembers Evans (Ward 2), John Ray (At-Large), and James Nathanson (Ward 3) have emerged as adamant opponents to the plant in the last few months.
On Oct. 12, these councilmembers introduced emergency legislation to block the plant. Drafted by Evans, the bill would prevent the city from granting building permits for cogenerators until District bureaucrats develop and the council approves a comprehensive policy on the technology. Given the glacial pace of District government, that should keep cogeneration out of D.C. until 2023. According to Evans spokesman John Ralls, the council could vote on the emergency bill as soon as Oct. 19.
The plant’s proponents believe that the councilmembers are simply bending to the political wind, unwilling to risk alienating the vocal and numerous cogen opponents.
“What is the function of the city council for the city?” Georgetown University’s Krull bellows. “Is it to second-guess the people they have appointed? It is to allow the process that is in place to go forward. That process has spoken.”
Evans dismisses Krull’s complaint. “If we on the council believe the regulatory process has not worked and the citizens of the District of Columbia are being adversely affected, then we have responsibility to intercede and correct the process.”
The partnership has too much at stake to back down. According to Usher, Dominion has already spent $10 million on lawyers, environmental and engineering studies, lobbyists, and public relations—about $7 million more than it would have spent for a project that went smoothly. Georgetown University, Krull says, has spent $2 million, compared to the “couple of hundred thousand dollars” it expected to. The cost of the entire project—estimated at $65 million in 1990—has risen to $90 million, and if Dominion can’t get it built, it would owe a hefty $1.7 million security payment to Pepco. Georgetown University, of course, would lose the fuel savings and would have to seek approval and financing for its own power plant renovation.
So if you think that Dominion won’t sue if the council blocks the plant, you haven’t been reading this article very closely.
How is it that Georgetown University became a megawatt-pusher in the first place?
Because the ivory tower of academia is bound to the iron law of economics. Like most big universities, Georgetown wants to grow, and its relatively small endowment of $342 million can’t finance its big ambitions. Like other schools, it has trolled for money wherever it could, keeping a sharp eye on the bottom line. The school shuttered its deficit-ridden dental school in 1990, built itself a palatial law school downtown, entered a $62 million research partnership (now defunct) with an Italian pharmaceutical company, raised undergraduate enrollment, and this year bailed out nearby Mount Vernon College with a $5.5 million loan. If Mount Vernon defaults, Georgetown University wins the 24-acre Foxhall Road campus.
The cogenerator—another profitable enterprise—seemed to be the perfect project both to expand the university and to soothe Georgetowners irritated by off-campus students. The school already provides beds for 86 percent of its undergraduates, more than any other local university, but the noisy parties, mounds of trash, and disruption that the off-campus students inflict upon Georgetown and nearby Burleith disturb their older neighbors’ sense of decorum—not to mention their property values.
The university has begun to acknowledge this sore point. It started applying its code of conduct to off-campus behavior, established a $300,000 community relations office, and kicked grad students out of campus dorms in order to move rowdy sophomores back inside the compound.
The university and the community planned to solve the housing problem completely by the end of this decade. In the 1990 campus plan, the university proposed adding 925 new beds to the campus. That document also introduced the concept of the new cogenerator, and the university linked the two projects. In the plan, the university promised to build the dorms “subject to the approval of the bond money [to finance the dorms], the approval of the campus plan by the Board of Zoning Adjustment, ®MDUL¯and the approval of the cogeneration facility by the Board of Zoning Adjustment®MDNM¯.” (Emphasis added.) You don’t have to be a lawyer to discern the university’s threat: If the neighbors killed the plant, the university would kill the dorms.
University spokesman Krull says the cogen erator delays have set back dorm construction at least several more years. If the plant isn’t built, Krull says, “There is absolutely no chance we will expand dormitories beyond what we are already doing….There won’t be another dormitory added to this campus for the foreseeable future if we have to spend our money to expand a power plant.”
Ted Jacobs, the ANC commissioner who favors the plant, approves of the housing/plant quid pro quo: “If the university will build sufficient housing for all students, we should give them something in return,” he says.
But opponents are incensed at the linkage. “They were just holding the housing idea hostage to the idea that the cogenerator was necessary,” says Virginia Mead.
“They are arguing that for us to accept an unacceptable situation [in the cogenerator], they are going to alleviate another unacceptable situation, which is student housing,” says Foxhall Village resident and plant opponent Dianne Sawaya. “That’s an outrageous argument….It’s a total ruse.”
If the Citizens Coalition were populated by true environmentalists, it would be awarding Georgetown University medals for conservation instead of slapping it with lawsuits. The current steam plant emits about 446 tons per year of air pollutants, as well as 6,300 tons of coal ash that must be trucked away. The new plant would emit no more than 422 tons of emissions per year, and no solid waste. And the cogenerator would produce not only steam to heat andcool Georgetown University, but also 56megawatts of electricity for Pepco. How can anyone oppose a plant that adds new electricity to the region’s hungry energy maw ®MDUL¯and®MDNM¯ reduces air pollution?
But listen to the critics: “It’s a huge smoke stack that will be added to the skyline,” says Duncan. If Georgetown University gets a cogen plant, Duncan expects that American University, George Washington University, and Howard University will want them, too. “Can you imagine if half a dozen more of these things are added?
“We’ll begin to look like the outskirts of Baltimore,” he continues. “We will tend to become the environmental dumping ground for out-of-state utilities that want to return money to shareholders.”
Plant opponents were equally furious when they learned, a full four years after the plant was proposed, about the handsome profits the university and Dominion would reap from the cogenerator.
“As long as Georgetown wants to build a cogeneration plant that fulfills the mission of the university, then I will support it,” says Councilmember Ray. “But that’s not what they’re doing. It’s a commercial enterprise. This really is a commercial undertaking for Georgetown to make a lot of money, and I don’t think the community should suffer because of it.”
“We don’t allow residential universities to do something just because it happens to make a lot of money,” says Duncan. “If they want to put in a three-ring circus that runs 24 hours a day, we don’t say, “Oh, go ahead.’ ”
Plant foes rightly note that a smaller plant—one that would pollute even less than the 56-megawatt plant—would meet Georgetown University’s heating and cooling needs. They say also that Pepco isn’t depending on this new cogenerator: After all, 56 megawatts is less than 1 percent of the utility’s capacity.
But Pepco is counting on the Georgetown University cogen project, according to spokes woman Nancy Moses. If the project falls through, the utility will have to seek another, potentially more expensive source of power.
And opponents overlook the fact that even if the current cogen facility is scuttled, zoning officials will eventually allow Georgetown University to build a new steam plant dedicated solely to the school’s needs.
“If this project does not go to conclusion, and I mean a successful conclusion, we’ll be back in front of BZA in a matter of hours or days or weeks for a power plant expansion,” says the university’s Krull. “Now, that’s going to include a smokestack. That’s going to include a hole in the ground. That’s going to include fuel tanks. And it’s probably not going to be as environmentally safe as the project we’re proposing.”
Plant opponents may resent the fact that the plant will make money, but Georgetown University engages in commercial undertakings all the time, like investing in District real estate or cutting a deal that allowed the Marriott chain to build an inn on tax-exempt university property.
And the quaint and pristine Georgetown of today that the plant opponents are so desperate to preserve is only a blip on the historical map. A stinky fat-rendering plant operated on the corner of 33rd and K Streets NW until the early ’70s, and a city trash incinerator, which lies in ruins at 31st and K NW, spewed soot into the village’s genteel skies from 1932 until 1971. As recently as the ’60s, the waterfront area that has since been tidied with condos, offices, and fancy restaurants was home to radiator shops and warehouses.
And how is it that a cogenerator whose smokestack releases fewer emissions than the existing plant could possibly contribute to the “Baltimoring” of D.C.?
The battle against the cogenerator has consumed the lives of the leaders of the Citizens Coalition. The Glover Park home of Robert and Virginia Mead is awash in cogen documents. Press clippings cram the notebooks on the floor; scientific studies are in the basement, hearing testimony piles up everywhere. Neither of the Meads work anymore—they look to be in their 60s—but they’re hardly retired: Each devotes at least 20 hours per week to cogenerator issues; they attend every community meeting; and they’ve spent thousands of dollars of their own money on phone calls and photocopies.
Westy McDermid is equally zealous. A 37-year-old ANC commissioner with restless, nervous energy, McDermid is the most dynamic and political of the plant opponents. The Georgetown resident (she lives two blocks from the campus) doesn’t hold down a job, either, preferring to haunt the offices of District bureaucrats and politicians, preaching the evils of the project to anyone who’ll listen. And, like all the plant opponents, McDermid is document-obsessed: She even transcribed and distributed a message of protest she left on the mayor’s home answering machine.
McDermid’s incredible grasp of all the complex issues in this fight makes her an effective spin doctor, but her fanaticism has cost her the friendship of plant supporter Grace Bateman, who once served with McDermid on ANC 2E.
“[Westy] is somebody who simply wants to fight the university,” Bateman says. “You only have to look at her straight in the eye and realize she is someone who has lost touch with objectivity.”
The plant opponents’ tenacity is best illustrated by their most recent front in the war against the power plant. The power lines that would carry the 69,000 volts of electricity from the campus to the electrical substation snake through the heart of Palisades, following the old Glen Echo streetcar right of way, and pass within 100 feet of dozens of houses. Earlier this year, after the plant opponents had been defeated in almost every venue available, they alleged that the power lines would rain potentially carcinogenic electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) down upon Palisades residents. Citing two books by journalist Paul Brodeur, ®MDUL¯Currents of Death®MDNM¯ and ®MDUL¯The Great Power-Line Cover-Up®MDNM¯, the opponents presented findings that have correlated cancer risk—particularly childhood leukemia—with living or working in the proximity of strong EMFs.
Brodeur’s books argue that utility companies have deliberately concealed the health dangers of power lines. Relying on a number of studies, including a comprehensive Swedish investigation of 50,000 people living near high-voltage lines, Brodeur claims that even weak EMFs are associated with increased risk of lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, leukemia, brain cancer, and other malignancies.
Invoking cancer and children in the same sentence guarantees public uproar, and the saturation of Palisades with red-and-white “Mayor Kelly: No Power Lines” posters indicates that the residents have embraced Brodeur’s thesis. But much of the scientific community doubts his dire conclusions. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the American Cancer Society have said the evidence of EMF hazards is inconclusive, and dozens of studies have refuted the findings that correlate EMFs and health problems.
Pepco, Dominion, and Georgetown University insist, of course, that the power lines pose not even minimal danger to the community. Pepco, which owns the lines, promises to cancel out most of the EMFs by running 13,800 volts of current against the 69,000 volts originating at the power plant. The power companies say this would create an opposite magnetic field that would reduce EMFs in the nearest houses and buildings to levels lower than those emitted by home appliances—levels lower than those linked to cancer by researchers.
The power companies also like to point out that the high-voltage power lines have run along the streetcar right of way for decades. Pepco spokeswoman Debra Leak says that from 1950 until 1977, the existing lines carried 69,000-volt currents past the Palisades homes. This power line component of the cogeneration project requires no new construction of high-voltage lines, no gigantic metal skeletons to hold the hot current. The only change would be the reactivation of old lines.
Even so, the residents have confronted the mayor twice at boisterous civic meetings, demanding that she delay plant approval until the developers have certified the safety of the lines.
“[Dominion and Pepco] constantly say: “The lines are already there.’ They make it sound like a visual thing…but they kind of miss the point,” says Virginia Mead. “It’s inconceivable that they would think of re-energizing the lines.”
Palisades residents may harbor fears other than cancer. Neighborhood EMF controversies in other cities have persuaded many of those residents to sell their houses, scared off new home buyers, and lowered property values.
The developers and regulators have fixed the plant’s size, location, and pollution output, but the power lines remain a negotiable issue. Most Palisades residents are amenable to a compromise whereby Pepco would bury the lines, suppressing the EMFs to still weaker levels. Under the terms of the Power Purchase Agreement, Pepco would pay the $2 million for construction and then pass the cost on to its ratepayers. Pepco says it will bury the lines if the Public Service Commission orders it to, but the notion of Pepco ratepayers subsidizing the capital investment of an unregulated power company rankles nearly everybody associated with the project. Dominion has hinted that it might pick up the tab if that will settle the issue.
“The deceiving of the people here is probably the most objectionable thing about the project,” says McDermid. “We have all the information. We have read all of the documents. So we understand the facts. We understand that what they are telling us is not the truth.”
Diving into her sea of cogen documents, McDermid returns to the surface with a harvest of Georgetown University and Dominion trickery, particularly their efforts to conceal the commercial nature of the project.
Again and again, the university camouflaged Dominion’s participation in the project, implying in one October 1990 letter to the community that Dominion’s participation would be limited to designing, constructing, and operating the plant because it had the technical expertise required. In fact, Georgetown University knew from the beginning that Dominion would own the plant. The school also falsely described Pepco’s involvement, claiming in the 1990 campus plan that “electricity in excess of the university’s requirements will be available for purchase” by Pepco. In fact, every watt of electricity was intended to be sold to Pepco.
A partial catalog of McDermid’s other complaints: Georgetown University and Dominion misinformed the BZA about the physical size of the plant, making it appear one-third smaller than its 82,000-square-foot floor area; they failed to submit adequate plans to the BZA for a 5,000-square-foot switchyard on the campus next to Glover-Archbold Park; they provided misleading air pollution figures to the DCRA; their attorneys concealed relevant documents from the opposition to preserve a zoning permit; and when a construction permit limit was about to expire, they falsely claimed to have begun building the plant in order to keep the permit alive.
One could interpret the “deceptions” as innocent mistakes, the result of sloppy paperwork. But the cogen partnership has employed only the best consultants and lobbyists from the beginning, including the firm of Wilkes Artis Hedrick & Lane—the assassins of zoning law—to eliminate legal obstacles in the regulatory process. The discrepancies reflect either incompetence or intent. Which do you suppose it is?
The university and Dominion Energy have carpet-bombed the neighbors with information—direct mail, flyers, and public appearances at innumerable community meetings—but the residents have rightly cast a skeptical eye on the media blitz. This summer brought the climax of the developers’ campaign: The university and Dominion placed a four-page advertisement in several community newspapers reaching 156,000 Washingtonians. The ad contained no obvious factual errors, but it backfired anyway. A postage-paid reply postcard enclosed in it asked readers to check off their opinion on the plant, but offered them only these three boxes: one to support the facility; one to ask for more information; and one to ask for a meeting with the developers.
There was no check-off box for ®MDUL¯opposition®MDNM¯ to the plant.
As of late September, Georgetown University had received only about 250 postcards, and the PR company retained by Dominion made the cards available to ®MDUL¯Washington City Paper®MDNM¯. The replies indicate that the narrow choices in the straw poll insulted the community. More than 80 cards contained negative comments. A sampling:
“How Jesuitical of you to leave out the majority opinion! Have you no remorse?”
“I believe the facility should ®MDUL¯not®MDNM¯ be built. How blatantly manipulative of you to omit this choice.”
“This is a disgraceful effort to deceive the public.”
“Unconvincing card a sham. We will not be duped.”
Georgetown University spokesman Krull defends the postcard: “You don’t do marketing strategy and say, “Oh, by the way, if you happen to be out there and really hate the project, use my dime and send it back.’ ”
In normal circumstances, Krull might be correct, but in this heated battle the postcard tactic boomeranged, weakening the university’s already shaky credibility.
“What is happening now is that the project developers are having to pay for their original concealment of pertinent
information,” says Sawaya. “What has hurt them, and it just blows my mind that they can’t figure it out, is that when you tell people lies, or misstate the truth, it angers people….They say they have given us information. They have given us a whole lot of misinformation.”
Just as the plant opponents turned to the D.C. Council to overturn the regulatory process, the developers have trekked to the Hill and asked Congress to expedite the building of the plant.
They struck out in the House, despite public support from Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Republican Rep. Thomas Bliley (a Georgetown University alum who represents Richmond, Va., where Dominion is headquartered). D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton rebuffed the university and Dominion, saying that the plant was a District issue.
The developers had more success on the Senate side. This summer, the Senate subcommittee on District appropriations ominously warned the city that it should make a decision on the plant without “undue delay.”
“This university has never challenged home rule. This university has supported home rule,” Krull says, justifying the Hill lobbying. “Only well beyond the twelfth hour did we go to the Hill and make it an issue and say, “Folks, wake up, the system of home rule isn’t working. A small group of opponents are using the system.’ ”
But Georgetown University and Dominion’s modest success came at great cost: They showed yet again that they would manipulate the process to the nth degree in order to get their way. Mayor Kelly and Councilmembers Ray, Evans, and Nathanson wrote letters to Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), who chairs the subcommittee, telling Congress to stay out of local affairs. Even the ®MDUL¯Washington Post®MDNM¯ editorial page, which has supported the plant, condemned the Hill meddling.
The cogen controversy has polarized every player but one: Mayor Kelly.
Noncommittal to the extreme, Kelly has enraged opponents and confused plant supporters with her vacillation. The mayor could postpone the plant indefinitely by ordering new regulatory studies—or hasten its approval by pressing her DCRA appointees to sign the final building permits. Instead, she has declined to interfere—at least overtly—with the process, motivated by either fairness or political expediency.
At a Sept. 21 Glover Park ANC meeting, Kelly told plant foes: “My sympathies are with you, and we’ll go through the regulatory process, and I’d be very surprised if you were disappointed in the end.”
But two weeks later, at a Palisades community meeting, Kelly announced that she was siding with Georgetown University and Dominion on a critical air-quality permit issue.
Since the only thing that lingers very long in the middle of the road is a dead squirrel, Kelly won’t be able to shield herself behind the regulators much longer. Election pressures will soon force her to pick a side. The looming mayoral contest is likely to pit Kelly against Councilmember Ray, whose staunch opposition to the plant wins him plaudit after plaudit from the Citizens Coalition. Kelly won in 1990 with strong support from Wards 2 and 3, and can’t afford to lose the voters of Georgetown in 1994.
Plant opponents, having exhausted the courts and the commissions, will happily take their campaign to the polls. Just last week McDermid warned the mayor of that with a message left on Kelly’s home answering machine: “Elections are never won by politicians who side with the big developers. John Ray learned that….But you don’t seem to have gotten the message.”
Other universities and institutions are watching the Georgetown fight closely. The Public Service Commission has identified 20 District sites—universities, hospitals, military bases, and other large facilities—as suitable for cogeneration. If Georgetown University wins approval for this plant and saves precious millions, the door will be open for American University, Howard University, D.C. General Hospital, and the Washington Navy Yard to strike deals with Dominion or some other cogenerator specialist tomorrow. Wherever the next cogen proposal surfaces, you can bet that NIMBY neighbors will muster opposition again.
But this particular cogeneration war is still far from over. The courts, the council, and Congress are sure to prolong the battle. Divorced from reality and fair play, zealots on both sides will continue to pour seemingly endless resources into the fray. Everyone’s motto seems to be: “by any means necessary.”
“We’ll lie down in front of the bulldozers if we have to,” says McDermid.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.