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The five-year battle to build a cogenerator power plant on Georgetown University’s campus ended in 1993, but the controversy continues in court. In an unusual legal counterattack, the District has filed a $22.7-million lawsuit against Dominion Energy Inc. and affiliated companies that had proposed to build the plant. The suit argues that Dominion and its affiliates “engaged in a scheme to defraud the Government.”
The Aug. 18 suit is a counterclaim against one filed in November 1993 by Dominion after it abandoned project. Dominion sued the city and several elected and appointed officials, charging that they illegally withheld building permits for the plant even though it had fulfilled regulatory requirements. U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth has already dismissed the suit against the individual defendants, who include former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, Councilmembers John Ray (At-large), Jack Evans (Ward 2), and former Councilmember Jim Nathanson.
According to the city’s suit, Dominion’s “fraudulent” scheme included the filing, submission, and presentation of “false and misleading” permit applications, documents, and testimony. Dominion’s conduct, according to the suit, “constitutes common law fraud, unjust enrichment, tortious conspiracy, and other civilly actionable conduct.”
Among the false information the city accuses Dominion of conveying is “that Georgetown University was the only party involved in the power plant project, when in truth, the power plant was to be constructed, owned, and operated exclusively by subsidiaries of Dominion Resources and Columbia Gas” and “that the size of the power plant, after the new construction, would be 49,000 square feet, when in fact the true size of the finished power plant was to be approximately 82,605 square feet.” The suit also says that Dominion’s “application materially omitted the fact that the “addition’ to the building would house a new 56 million watt power plant which could reasonably be viewed as a new and non-conforming use of the University’s land.”
In addition, the city claims that Dominion’s representatives failed to disclose all the environmental risks associated with the project, including such hazards as fire, oil leaks or spills, the use of concentrated ammonia, and “the carcinogenic or other potential health effects of the electromagnetic fields that would result by reenergizing…long-dead 69,000 volt power lines whose route carried them in close proximity to…family residences.”
The complaints show how Dominion’s suit has driven the city into the arms of the power plant’s opponents. City regulators were well on the way to approving the cogenerator in 1993 until Ray and Evans entered the battle at the insistence of their constituents; now the city echoes the concerns of the plant’s opponents, even on such contentious issues as electromagnetic fields. (The effects of electromagnetic fields are in dispute; some scientists say they have no adverse impact on health.)
A footnote: Dominion Energy’s land-use counsel was Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick, & Lane, known for high-powered tactics that have proved counterproductive recently. Wilkes, Artis also represented WETA in its bids to win approval for a new downtown headquarters. The public television/radio station attempted to elude the zoning for its first choice, the old Hecht’s site at 7th and F Streets NW, only to be slapped down by the Zoning Commission; then it ignored concerns that its proposed building on the George Washington University campus would violate the city’s height limit, only to face opposition in Congress. Recently, WETA acknowledged that it is negotiating seriously for a new site in Arlington, within walking distance of its current Shirlington headquarters.