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At the Sierra Club’s press event, Mr. Dougherty on Monday questioned the federal government’s use of coal for reserve purposes only. He held up “surveillance photos” from a four-month period that, he said, shows the coal had been “frequently consumed and then resupplied during the last heating season.”

City resident Lucy Rojansky said it would smell “like a Russian train station” around her community from time to time, but she couldn’t pinpoint the source of the odor. Her family moved to the Southwest quadrant of the city in 2006, but she did not know until this year that the plant uses coal as one of its sources of fuel.

Ms. Rojansky held her 14-month-old daughter, Edith, on Monday as she described the funny smell she would encounter when she crossed South Capitol Street toward the twin smokestacks that rise in front of the Capitol’s dome.

Club members said coal emissions, among their harmful effects, speed climate change and disperse sulfur dioxide, a key component of acid rain, into the atmosphere.

“We’re breathing it in right now,” Irv Sheffey, an associate field organizer for the Sierra Club, told reporters. He added later, “We could test the few hairs on my head and find arsenic.”