A power plant that provided electricity to the U.S. Capitol for decades and still heats and cools the iconic building and its surrounding offices is raising questions about whether coal's days are numbered as an American fuel of choice, particularly in the symbolic heart of the nation's capital.
Citing a "suite of toxic chemicals" in emissions from the Capitol Power Plant, the Sierra Club and city residents assembled just south of the 102-year-old plant on Monday to demand elimination of coal from its battery of fuel — even though the site predominantly uses natural gas.
Members of Congress have decried the use of coal at the plant, located mere blocks from the nation's halls of power, as a symbol of the country's pollution problems. In 2009, Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada announced that natural gas would be the primary source of fuel at the plant.
Since then, the government has been actively trying to move away from using coal at the plant, said Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol, which oversees the plant.
The plant provides steam and chilled water to heat and cool buildings on the Capitol campus. It generated electricity for the federal buildings from 1910 to 1951 and "has been enlarged many times to keep up with expansion of congressional offices and corresponding increase in heating and cooling demands of the Capitol campus," according to the website of the Architect of the Capitol.
Natural gas accounts for more than 90 percent of the plant's fuel, while coal and fuel oil are used in a reserve capacity when its natural gas machinery breaks down or has to be taken off line for maintenance, Ms. Malecki said.
Coal, she added, had to be used during the 2010 winter storm known locally as "snowmaggedon."
The Sierra Club held its event roughly seven hours before a hearing on a pair of permits the Architect of the Capitol has pending before the District Department of the Environment.
Ms. Malecki said the permits will restrict overall emissions and approve the construction of "co-generation" technology that uses natural gas to produce both steam and electricity.
"At the time [the plant] was built, coal was one of the major fuel sources," she said. "We need to put in new infrastructure before we take out the old."
But activists said federal officials did not go far enough in their proposed emissions cap and have not met their commitments from 2009.
"Our concern is with the plant's 100-plus-year tradition of burning coal," said Jim Dougherty, who sits on the Sierra Club's board of directors. "We're taking advantage of this point in time to renew our long-standing demand that they stop burning coal at the plant once and for all."
The activists also pointed to political opposition from coal states' members of Congress, singling out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, and the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat. Reports from the Associated Press, Roll Call and The Washington Post over the past decade refer to the pair's efforts to keep coal at the site, citing cost savings and cleaner coal technologies.
On Monday, the Architect of the Capitol flatly rejected suggestions they have bowed to political pressure by acquiring coal. The trio of fuels are acquired as part of a government consortium in which the Defense Logistics Agency procures fuel at a guaranteed price.
A spokesman for Mr. McConnell said "the last statement I can find from this office was in 2007, and that was on limiting emissions."
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."
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