Residents Protest Capitol Plant Coal Burning

The Capitol Power Plant at 25 E Street, SE is surrounded by residences, schools and parks.

On December 17, at a public hearing at the District’s Department of the Environment,  over 50 protestors expressed their opposition to the continued burning of coal at the Capitol Power Plant located at New Jersey Ave. and D Street SE. Along with soot, the short stacks of the CPP emit sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide when burning coal. Resident Jane Chittick, offered a hair raising account of her first weekend on Duddington Place when the black rain of soot showered her patio on an otherwise blue-skied Memorial Day weekend: “I thought it was raining. My dog’s fur was sticky like hair spray. Later I had to use ice scrapers on my windshield as if there was a snow storm.” This was 2004. Now she has asthma.

No one testified on behalf of the permits for construction and operation of new cogeneration units at the CPP which would allow for a loosening of standards of emissions nor were there was there any testimony from the District’s Executive Branch or the City Council. The permits do not ban coal usage at the CPP. 

Unnecessary Coal Burning

The CPP provides heat and steam for the U.S. Capitol buildings. After similar protests in 2009, a promise was secured in writing from then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as well as from the Architect of the Capitol to shift the plant’s focus away from coal and to natural gas which is both cheaper and significantly less of a pollutant. Many of the members of Congress live within a short distance of this polluting plant and breathe its air three days a week.

Protestors are calling on Mayor Gray and his Interim Director of DDOE, Keith Anderson to refuse to issue the permits that would allow them to loosen regulations on emissions and hope to use the cogeneration permits as leverage to ban the use of coal.  The new DDOE permits would establish “emission limits, which would in effect limit, but not ban, coal usage at the facility.” 

What particularly infuriated the protesting residents was the lack of notification to the community. Hearing Officer Steve Ours, under sustained attack as residents testified that they did not want to breathe poisoned air, stated “that notice was published in the DC Register and posted on the DDOE’s web site”  conceding that Neighborhood Advisory Commission 6B was not notified. Ours stated there is no timetable on when a decision will be made and that, once decided, there will not be any comment period.

The protest was an attempted reprise of a 2009 demonstration when 2500 protestors organized by the Capitol Climate Action blocked the five entryways of the CPP in an effort to bring attention to the dangers of climate change.

Ten years ago the plant was re-engineered to allow it to burn fuels other than coal so the burning of coal, according to protesters, is done unnecessarily and more expensively.

Sierra Club Alerts Community

The Sierra Club (www.sierraclub.org) with a DC membership of over 3600 members,  along with Greenpeace USA, was instrumental in notifying community residents using the old fashioned door-to-door flyer. The Sierra Club’s Jim Dougherty testified that “over 44,000 DC residents including 13,000 children suffer from asthma and other respiratory diseases.”  Included in Dougherty’s testimony was photographic surveillance which showed the massive coal pile nearby rising and falling with use during 2011-12 weather seasons. According to the Sierra Club, the CPP is the largest emitter of air pollution in the District.

In addition the Sierra Club has made public an RFP issued by the Defense Logistics Agency soliciting bids to purchase 20,000 tons of coal for the 2013 season. According to reports, coal use at the CPP in 2009 was 11,406 tons and 1,902 tons in 2010.

Architect of Capitol Responds

The operator of the plant is the Architect of the Capitol, Stephen T. Ayers, who takes his marching orders from the Democratic and Republican leadership on Capitol Hill.

Eva Malecki, Communication Officer for the AOC’s Office, said that coal is not being burned at any substantial rate and is burned when there are “maintenance or snowmaggedon” issues and as emergency back up, stating that “the ratio of natural gas to coal for the fiscal year 2012 is 92 % natural gas and just under 8% coal.”

Malecki defended the coal burning as occasional stating that “cogeneration will only use natural gas” adding that coal  boilers will be “decommissioned” if and when the permits are authorized from DDOE and that “ we buy coal as a reserve. The goal is to move to environmentally friendly natural gas.”

Asked about the RFP for the purchase of 20 thousand tons of coal, Malecki said that this order is not just for the AOC, that it is “the best value for taxpayers, the best price and part of a larger RFP ” and that “the savings are spread across any number of agencies.” 

Asked to explain the surveillance photos the Sierra Club has taken Malecki insisted repeatedly that, however the photos are interpreted  “coal was only 8% of the fuel used on the Capitol campus.”

AOC was out front and in constant contact with the community on recently completed work to remove asbestos in the tunnels surrounding the Capitol.  Asked about why AOC had allowed the situation to become a public relations problem within  the same community when AOC had so adroitly handled the tunnel work with informative community meetings and email updates, Malecki cited the recent focus on “moving members of the House into new offices, the building of the Inaugural platform and the uncertainty of the permit process.“ Asked if there might not be a good opportunity to present the AOC perspective, Malecki responded: “We certainly can consider that.”  adding it would “ be hard to figure out when to schedule it” given the unpredictability of the permit process.

Wells & Santa State Opposition 

Ward Six Councilmember Tommy Wells in a sharply worded letter to the DDOE wrote on December 17 that “it is unacceptable for residents of the District to be exposed to these noxious pollutants, in the ongoing and inappropriate use of coal at the CPP,”  adding:  “I am opposed to any action that increases the use of coal at the US Capitol Power Plant. “

Santa Claus, not being otherwise occupied, attended the morning protest at the coal yard, and after dropping a chunk of coal into the AOC’s Christmas stocking,  summed up the day: “I am here because it is important to recognize people who are naughty or nice. The coal air we are breathing is naughty. Instead of ho ho ho,  it is no no no.”