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.
Emissions from the power plant are regulated by the District government under an arrangement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The plant is required to report its emissions to the city, which says it is in compliance with its permit. Last year, the Capitol Power Plant burned 17,108 tons of coal.
In 2002, the most recent year for which figures were available from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the Capitol Power Plant was the second-largest fixed source of sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide in the District. A Pepco plant on Benning Road in Northeast was the largest.
Sulfur dioxide is a primary component of acid rain and an ingredient in smog. Carbon monoxide, a factor in smog and global warming, can cause breathing problems and damage plants.
No one knows how much carbon dioxide -- the greenhouse gas most closely associated with coal -- is emitted from the plant. The Environmental Protection Agency has not required regulation of carbon dioxide emissions, said Joan Rohlfs, chief air-quality planner for the council. A recent Supreme Court ruling has changed that, ordering the EPA to treat carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
According to the 2002 data, the Capitol Power Plant was the city's fourth-largest fixed source of nitrogen oxide, a precursor to smog that exacerbates respiratory diseases such as asthma. It was the third-biggest producer of fine particulates, which have been linked to lung cancer.
Asthma rates in the District exceed the national average. The percentage of adults with asthma living in the District in 2005 was 9.2 percent, compared with the national average of 8 percent, according to city officials. More than 11 percent of children had asthma, compared with 9 percent nationwide.
Timothy Ballo, a lawyer at Earthjustice, said any effort to "Green the Capitol" without addressing the power plant would be a failure.
"Coal combustion is one of the driving forces behind global warming," said Ballo, whose organization is challenging the environmental permit allowing the plant to operate, which is issued by the city and is up for renewal. "It's a problem, especially for D.C., given its low elevation. We would very much like them to stop burning coal. The government seems almost hypocritical to do this in its own back yard."
Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol, repeatedly declined to answer questions about the plant and its emissions, citing security concerns. But she wrote in an e-mail that her agency has spent "and will be spending several millions of dollars" to reduce pollutants and improve efficiency. She pointed to improvements including the use in the 1990s of "baghouses," dust collectors that trap soot from coal combustion before the smoke is released into the air.
"They may be meeting their permit requirements, but given a choice between burning coal and natural gas, natural gas is always going to be cleaner," said Tim Aiken, legislative director for Moran.
Pelosi, who attracted attention when she banned smoking in the Speaker's Lobby of the Capitol earlier this year, has not decided whether to push to drop coal from the power plant or make other changes. The plan she released on Thursday was preliminary, and the main reference to the plant involved a promise to contribute "a per ton payment . . . of carbon dioxide equivalents emitted by the Capitol Power Plant boilers and placing these funds in the Green Revolving Fund to be used to directly mitigate the emissions."
Pelosi said she is awaiting detailed recommendations by June 30 from Beard, the chief administrative officer, but the fact that the Architect of the Capitol and its power plant are overseen by both the House and the Senate limits what Pelosi can change, Beard said.
"We can say what we want, and, unless the Senate agrees, we can't do anything," he said.