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Congress to Take Up ‘Waste-to-Energy’ Sustainability System

The House Republican majority, which did away with Democrats’ composting program early this year to save money, announced a new initiative today that it says will both reduce Congress’ environmental footprint and cut costs.

At the direction of the House Administration Committee, the Architect of the Capitol has signed a contract with an outside vendor that will dispose of the Capitol’s solid waste through a process known as “waste-to-energy.”

The idea was conceived as a House program, but the Senate will also participate. The Senate Rules and Administration Committee helped facilitate the bipartisan effort.

Under the terms of the 17-month contract, Urban Service Systems Corp. of Washington, D.C., will transport up to 90 percent of the Capitol’s non-recyclable solid waste to a nearby plant, where it will be burned to produce electricity.

The initiative will save Congress about $60,000 annually, according to House Administration Committee spokeswoman Salley Wood, and advocates say it will also reduce the complex’s environmental footprint.

“Instead of being placed in landfills, the waste will be burned, generating enough electricity to power an office building the size of the Dirksen or Longworth Building for several months,” Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers said in a statement. He noted that Congress produced more than 5,300 tons of waste in fiscal 2010.

House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren called the program a “win-win.”

“It’s more energy efficient, environmentally sensitive and economical,” the California Republican said.

Democratic environmentalists in the House have long accused their Republican colleagues of shunning sustainability, especially when Styrofoam cups reappeared in House cafeterias.

But today’s announcement signaled that many of these same Democrats would be open to embracing the initiative, if they haven’t already.

Rep. Jim Moran, the ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior and Environment, has tried multiple times to amend the legislative branch appropriations bill to bar Styrofoam in House dining facilities. The Virginia Democrat praised the news of the waste-to-energy program.

“It’s the appropriate thing to do, burning our waste and getting energy from it,” he said. “We do it in my district, and it’s something we studied carefully when I was the mayor of Alexandria.”

Rep. Peter Welch, who pays a carbon-offset provider to offset the greenhouse gas emissions related to his Washington and district offices, agreed. “I’m totally open to it, if it’s done right,” the Vermont Democrat said.

Rep. Ed Markey, the ranking member on the Natural Resources Committee, also indicated that he would be supportive. However, the Massachusetts Democrat said the plant would have to meet the standards contained in the climate change legislation he helped shepherd through the House in the previous Congress.

“Without knowing if this plant meets that standard, it would be hard to fully support or dismiss the endeavor,” a Markey spokesman said. “If it does meet that standard, then it would be in line with [his] previous efforts to support the cleanest forms of this technology.”

Not all Democrats were on board, however. Many were concerned about the carbon dioxide emissions created by burning the waste and worried that the program would interfere with recycling initiatives.

“I don’t agree with it,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a member of the House Administration Committee. “Why the Republicans are choosing pollution at every step is beyond me.”

Architect of the Capitol spokeswoman Eva Malecki stressed that the new program would not interfere with the Capitol’s “robust recycling process.”

A waste-to-energy plant has not been selected, but facilities run by Covanta Energy are possible contenders, given their proximity to the Capitol. Paul Gilman, Covanta’s chief sustainability officer, said the facilities are regulated to keep emissions at safe levels.

“The concerns that people have about emissions are a concern of almost two decades ago,” he said. “The industry is dramatically different because of the Clean Air Act and the regulations that came from them.”

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