Reliance on Coal Sullies 'Green the Capitol' Effort

Congress runs the Capitol Power Plant, which heats and cools buildings on the Hill. Two senators ensure it burns coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels.
Congress runs the Capitol Power Plant, which heats and cools buildings on the Hill. Two senators ensure it burns coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 21, 2007

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a pre-Earth Day news conference this week to promote her plans to "Green the Capitol," she promised a number of steps to make the congressional campus a model of environmentalism.

But, surrounded by boxes of energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs she wants to install in 12,000 desk lamps, she became conspicuously vague when asked about the pair of towering smokestacks four blocks away.

The Capitol Power Plant, operated by Congress, is the only coal-burning plant in the District and is a major source of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and soot in a city that has repeatedly been found in violation of the Clean Air Act.

But any efforts to eliminate coal have been thwarted by two of the most powerful figures in the Senate, who just happen to represent coal-producing states: Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

When the office of the Architect of the Capitol took a step in 2000 to eliminate coal from the fuel mix, the two lawmakers let it be known that they wanted coal to continue as the main fuel burned at the plant. Byrd and McConnell had a lot of say about the Architect's budget, and the discussions quickly ended.

Neither senator has any apologies for wanting the plant to continue using coal. "He'd like it to continue as the fuel source," said spokesman Don Stewart of McConnell, though he said the senator would review any recommendations from the Architect's office.

"As we break the chains of foreign oil, our reliance on resources that we have here at home will only expand," said Jenny Thalheimer, a spokeswoman for Byrd. "Technologies are available today that can burn coal more cleanly and more efficiently."

A familiar landmark to drivers on Interstate 395, the power plant is bounded by four busy streets in Southeast, wedged between the highway and a manicured neighborhood of historic townhouses. The plant has been called the "armpit of the Capitol" by Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), who has repeatedly questioned why Congress continues to operate it. Lawmakers recently approved an $85 million expansion so the plant can serve the Capitol Visitors Center, which is still under construction.

Despite its name, the Capitol Power Plant, which opened in 1910, has not produced a watt of electricity since 1952; the Capitol complex buys its power from Pepco.

Instead, the plant generates steam and chilled water to heat and cool the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and 19 other structures. Steam and chilled water are carried in pipes through a web of tunnels stretching from south of the Capitol to Union Station.

Those tunnels present a health risk in their own right to the workers who maintain them. Built at the turn of the last century, the tunnels are lined with asbestos, a carcinogen. The tunnel workers have charged that the Architect of the Capitol, which oversees the power plant, knowingly exposed them to hazards, and nine of the 10 workers say doctors have found evidence of exposure to asbestos in their lungs. Last week, under pressure from Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the Architect pulled the workers from the tunnels.

In addition to coal, the Capitol Power Plant burns natural gas and fuel oil, which are less polluting. About 49 percent of the fuel burned at the plant is coal, 43 percent is natural gas, and the rest is oil, said Daniel Beard, chief administrative officer of the House.

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