D.C. Council plans for more aggressive action on environmental concerns

February 5, 2013

The D.C. Council is preparing to more forcefully challenge federal authorities on environmental and climate change issues, including whether to outlaw the use of coal at the power plant that services the U.S. Capitol.

During their second legislative meeting this year, lawmakers introduced dozens of bills for consideration, and several of them revolve around their plans to more aggressively pursue environmental concerns.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced a resolution calling on the Obama administration to utilize the federal Clean Air Act to push for significant reductions in greenhouse gases. The resolution would align the District with 47 other cities seeking more decisive action to limit carbon emissions.

“Climate change is already affecting our planet,” Cheh said. “The last decade was the warmest on record, there was Superstorm Sandy . . . and with devastating frequency the sea levels are rising faster than many predicted.”

Although the resolution is nonbinding, another measure could lead to a more direct challenge between city and federal lawmakers.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) introduced legislation that would outlaw the burning of coal at power plants in the District starting in 2017. According to Wells, only one power plant in the city still burns coal — the Capitol Power Plant on E Street SE.

Wells, who represents Capitol Hill, notes that the plant is near several schools and has been linked to air pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide.

The plant, commissioned in 1910 and used to heat and cool the Capitol and congressional office buildings, primarily burns natural gas. But Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol, said coal is still used “in case of emergency or maintenance” and in “abnormally cold conditions.”

Last year, Malecki said, natural gas was used 92 percent of the time.

In 2009, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pledged to stop the use of coal at the plant. But Wells said lawmakers from coal-producing states pushed back to keep coal as a heating and cooling option.

“This is the last entity in the city burning coal, and the reason they burn coal is for political reasons,” Wells said. “All natural gas will be a welcome change.”

Malecki declined to comment on Wells’s legislation. But the proposal sets up questions about the council’s ability to influence decisions in Congress.

Congress and the White House can block any law approved by the D.C. Council. And if the House and Senate allow such a law to go into effect, some council members speculate, Congress could ignore it by arguing that local lawmakers have no authority over congressional facilities.

But Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said the legislation would be no different than other city rules that members of Congress are expected to follow. “Congressmen have to obey red lights, and they have to pay the sales tax,” Mendelson said.

Meanwhile, council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) proposed Tuesday to make it a local crime for someone to sell or trade a hide, skin or any other part of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. He said the measure is needed because federal authorities do not have enough resources to aggressively enforce the law.

“There is currently no local power to investigate,” said Graham, adding that he worries that some city residents continue to sell ivory and other products derived from endangered animals.

To combat noise pollution, Graham also has introduced a bill that gives D.C. police authority to tow a vehicle when its alarm has gone off for at least eight hours.

Under current law, Graham said, police can ticket but not tow vehicles. He said some car alarms sound for more than a day before they are disabled or the car battery dies.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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