Lorton plant workers keep locals “empowered” during deep freeze


Michael McGrath, director of wastewater treatment at Noman Cole Pollution Control Plant, gives visitors a tour in November 2022.

While many area residents were still snug in their beds during the unnaturally frigid early hours of Christmas Eve, a handful of essential workers from a local wastewater treatment facility were busy ensuring that power would stay on for thousands of households across the region.

At 4:20 a.m. on Dec. 24, staff members at Noman Cole Pollution Control Plant, located at 9399 Richmond Highway in Lorton, received an emergency notification that the electrical power grid was severely overloaded. To prevent widespread blackouts in Northern Virginia and other parts of the Mid-Atlantic, Noman Cole workers immediately took the plant completely off-grid, revving up five large electricity generators and using them to remove 5,700 kilowatts of electricity demand from the grid — the equivalent of the amount of power used by 4,500 households, according to Fairfax County’s Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES).

This so-called “islanding” process can take anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes, said DPWES spokesperson Sharon North, and is closely coordinated with the Dominion Power Operations Center.

During the 14 hours that Noman Cole operated off-grid, the facility’s wastewater treatment activities continued to function normally and were “100 percent compliant” with Clean Water Act regulations, said North.

This was not the first time that plant workers conducted this maneuver; besides holding an annual drill, Noman Cole staff took operations off-grid a few years ago during a heat wave.  The main difference at that time was that the facility’s full daytime staff was present, said North.

The Noman Cole Pollution Control Plant treats around 40 million gallons of raw sewage per day, releasing treated water into Pohick Creek. The plant is open to community members for tours from March to November.

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