Residents Outraged Over On-going Use of Coal, Planned Increase in Emissions at Capitol Power Plant

A nearby resident of the Capitol Power Plant tells of her asthma problems since moving to the neighborhood.

A nearby resident of the Capitol Power Plant tells of her asthma problems since moving to the neighborhood.

Residents Outraged Over On-going Use of Coal, Planned Increase in Emissions at Capitol Power Plant

Tommy Wells Says, “This In Not Acceptable”

by Cathy Plume  

Monday evening, Capitol Hill residents used a DC Department of the Environment (DDOE) public hearing to voice outrage over the continued use of coal and a proposal by the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) to increase emissions at the Capitol Power Plant (CPP).   The purpose of the hearing was to discuss Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers’ request to construct and operate an additional combined heat and power system at the Capitol Power Plant that will be primarily fueled by natural gas, with fuel oil as a backup, but will not burn coal.  Approximately 50 people attended the meeting including Hill Residents and representatives from the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace.

Speakers  noted that burning coal produces sulfur dioxide, soot, and carbon monoxide as well as mercury, lead, arsenic, dioxins, formaldehyde and radioactive elements (including radium and uranium.  The emission of these pollutants is eliminated or reduced when natural gas is burned.  Several nearby CPP residents noted the adverse effects to use of coal has on their asthma as well as the ash residue and “rain” (soot) that falls on sunny days when coal is being burned at the plant.  The short stacks with which the CPP is outfitted exacerbates the amount of pollution that drifts across the DC area.  Attendees also pointed out that coal burning and its impact on climate change are undeniable and that Washington, DC AND the AOC should be looking to sustainable energy options.

On Tuesday, Councilmember Tommy Wells weighed in with DDOE, voicing his opposition to any increased emissions and continued use of coal at the plant, noting that the “proposed installations ‘will likely result in increased emissions for the facility.’  This is not acceptable.”  The full text of Wells’ letter is here:

For decades the CPP has burned coal for steam and hot water during the winter.  Some 10 years ago, the plant was reengineered to burn natural gas and diesel both of which burn much “cleaner” than coal.  In March 2009, an estimated 2,500 protesters blocked the five main gates to the CPP to protest the burning of coal in the facility.  In response to the protest and later in the same week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Leader Harry Reid released a letter asking the Capitol Architect to switch the Capitol Power Plant from coal to 100 percent natural gas by the end of 2009. 

Since 2009, the amount of coal burned in the plant has dropped but still continues.  Many attendees were unaware and outraged that coal is still being burned at the plant.  A Sierra Club representative showed photos tracking the reduced size of a pile of coal at the CPP over time. The AOC, at best, has slow-walked the request from Congressional leadership, though coal burning in recent years has been reduced.  According to the DC Environmental Network, the plant burned 11,406 tons of coal in 2009 compared with 1,902 tons of coal in 2010.  However, the Defense Logistics Agency has recently solicited bids for 20,000 tons of coal for delivery to the Plant in 2013 for the 2013-2014 winter season.

Several speakers noted that DDOE, despite the call for a public hearing on the issue, seems to already be siding with the AOC.  The DDOE website notes, “Two of the large boilers at CPP can and have historically burned coal.  Their coal use, however, is quite small compared to most coal burning facilities.”  DDOE goes on to state, “The permits actually propose to significantly lower the emission limits at the power plant and therefore limit the amount of coal that CPP can use”.

A few notes of clarification:

·         The CPP does not have to burn coal at all as it has been reengineered to burn natural gas.

·         The use of coal in this plant is small as the CPP itself is small since it only services the Capitol and a few other government buildings (vs. several cities as is the norm for most coal-fired power plants).

·         The permits would establish facility-wide emission limits, which would limit, but not ban, coal usage at the facility.  However, the AOE is using a 2007-2009 baseline for emissions – years that were characterized by high levels of coal burning versus emissions from more recent years when coal burning at the CPP have been reduced.

DDOE representatives seemed unprepared for the large number of attendees at the meeting.  Officials were unable to answer seemingly basic questions regarding the decision-making process for the permits or the timing of the decision.  DDOE was also widely criticized for their lack of public outreach regarding the hearing and residents lauded the Sierra Club for their efforts to inform residents about the meeting.

The Washington Times published a story on the meeting that can be found at:

To continue following this issue, contact the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club.

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