Coal-Burning at the Capitol Power Plant Can Continue … for Now

On Thursday, June 6, after months of deliberations, the District Department of Environment (DDOE) issued a permit to the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) allowing the Capitol Power Plant (CPP) to proceed with the construction of a cogeneration system that will use natural gas to produce electricity while using the steam generated to help heat the Capitol complex. The DDOE permit sets emission caps (hazardous air pollutants, particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide) at 2007-08 levels – when coal accounted for 50 percent of the fuel source. The DC Chapter of the Sierra Club and neighbors had argued for these emission limits to be based on the lower levels of coal-burning at the plant during the last three years (2009-11). 

While the cogeneration plant will allow the CPP to burn natural gas 100 percent of the time, the DDOE emissions permit allows the CPP to burn coal until and 18 months after the cogeneration facility is completed. In the short to medium term this isn’t good news for DC air quality, especially as AOC doesn’t have the funds in hand to construct the cogeneration facility. By issuing this permit DDOE essentially rejected the community's and the Sierra Club's demands for a firm endpoint to coal-burning at the plant.

So ends this chapter of an ongoing saga to end coal-burning at the CPP. You’ve all seen CPP, located along I-395. It’s been operational since 1910. With its low smokestacks the CPP is the largest emitter in the District. You’ll often see “stuff” billowing from the stacks, and while the plant is burning natural gas most of the time, sometimes it’s burning coal. Regardless of what’s being burned, particulates fall out across the DC area with a concentration on Capitol Hill. Some nearby neighbors report soot “rain” falling when the CPP burns coal, while others are convinced that some of their health issues are related to CPP emissions.

In 2009 residents and the Sierra Club protested coal-burning at the CPP. In response the AOC, spurred by a letter from then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, pledged to stop burning coal at the CPP unless absolutely necessary. While coal-burning at the plant was reduced, it was never eliminated.

Then, in February 2012, the AOC submitted its plan to DDOE to produce electricity at the plant using natural gas turbines (cogeneration). This proposal remained largely undisclosed until the Sierra Club, in December, sent out an announcement that DDOE would hold hearing on the AOC's plan. This hearing reignited old tensions between the AOC and the Capitol Hill neighborhood and the Federal and DC governments. DDOE was taken aback by the public outcry and was forced to extend the public comment period for the permit. More than 1,700 District residents submitted comments to DDOE – exceeding the number of comments previously received on any one issue.

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells and US Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton support the ban on coal-burning at the CPP, and in an unprecedented move (at least in recent history) all members of the DC City Council signed a letter addressed to Mayor Vincent Gray stating that coal-burning at the CPP should end “promptly and permanently.” 

At the same time DDOE issued the permit, the mayor’s office issued a press release announcing “The Ban on Combustion of Coal Act of 2013.” This legislation would:

  • Ban coal-burning in the District, beginning 18 months after the commercial operation date of the Capitol Power Plant’s (CPP) cogeneration project (except in instances of force majeure and for testing and tuning). The commercial operation date is the date upon which construction of the new cogeneration equipment has been completed, adequately tested, and authorized as able to deliver electricity to the distribution system.
  • Strictly limit facilities to burning coal to no more than 72 hours per emissions unit, per year, and only for the purposes of tuning and testing. Testing and tuning are required by the Federal Clean Air Act and District regulations.

The press release goes on to note: “The facility’s ability to restrict coal usage … is entirely dependent upon completion of the cogeneration project and achievement of the commercial operation date.”

Coal-burning at the CPP flies in the face of Mayor Gray’s recently announced Sustainable DC Initiative – a “20 year plan to make the District the healthiest, greenest, most livable city in the nation.” One of the plan’s goals is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2032. Advocates for cleaner air in DC can only hope that AOC gets the funding for the cogeneration plant sooner than later and that coal-burning at the CPP will end once and for all.

Catherine Plume blogs for the DC Recycler: