AOC Feels Heat on Power Plant Coal Use

Capitol Hill residents, environmental activists want plant to abandon coal as soon as possible, run on natural gas

Posted April 25, 2013 at 5:10pm

The Architect of the Capitol is used to answering to members of Congress. But these days, it also has the local community to contend with.

The AOC is awaiting a permit from the District Department of the Environment to proceed with plans to make the Capitol Power Plant run 100 percent on natural gas. The century-old structure that provides heat to the Capitol campus can’t currently support an operation that doesn’t use coal as a fuel source at least some of the time.

That doesn’t sit well with D.C. activists and local officials, many of whom live in the neighborhood where the plant is located and want the AOC to stop burning coal now, or at the very least commit to a timetable to phase out coal.

It could be that, in order to receive its permit, the AOC will have to strike a deal with the D.C. government to put such a timetable in place. Negotiations between the two groups are ongoing, said Mayor Vincent Gray’s spokesman Pedro Ribeiro, and are progressing well.

“We’re interested in getting to a solution that bans coal at the power plant and we are very, very close to an agreement,” Ribeiro told CQ Roll Call on Thursday. “We should have something to announce in a not-so-distant future.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., is also looking to give the AOC a deadline after the agency promised that coal burning would be eliminated at the plant by October 2011.

“He left us and the community to assume he was converting right now to natural gas,” Norton said of AOC Stephen Ayers. “He obviously misspoke — I hope he misspoke rather than misled — when he told Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid that [the AOC] would cease using coal.”

In 2009, partly because of public outcry, the AOC promised Pelosi, then the speaker, and Senate Majority Leader Reid, D-Nev., that the plant would only burn coal under three circumstances: when “heating needs exceed the capacity of the natural gas pipeline currently serving the complex,” during “abnormally cold conditions” and in cases where “equipment outages on the gas boilers require a backup.”

Though Norton wants the AOC to commit to a timeline for phasing out the fuel source, she said she understood that coal might have to be employed from time to time until the AOC has completed construction on the new natural-gas technology.

AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki did not respond to a request for comment Thursday, but she has said in the past that coal would be on hand during the switch to natural gas until all systems are “go.” In the meantime, she has emphasized that since 2009, the plant uses coal only 8 percent of the time.

“You could have a breakdown, you could have an outage. … You are never going to have a facility as important as the Capitol Power Plant without any backup,” Norton said. “I don’t think that my environmentalist friends mean that if the natural gas line went down there should be nothing that could be done.”

But many of these “environmentalist friends” — including the local chapter of the Sierra Club and the Capitol Power Plant Working Group — are standing firm on their insistence that no permit should be issued by the DDOE unless it requires the AOC to stop burning coal immediately.

The working group, a core group of activists and Capitol Hill residents, also wants the DDOE to require the AOC to use emissions levels of the most recent years as the benchmark for plant-wide emissions going forward. The AOC currently proposes using as a baseline for future emissions the emissions of 2007 and 2008, before congressional leadership made Ayers promise to phase out coal.

Anything less, said working group member Daryl Kimball, would be unacceptable.

All the members of the D.C. Council have also indicated they are on the same page. On Monday, they called on Gray to use his influence to ensure that the DDOE “takes firm steps to ensure that the plant’s emissions are reduced — if not immediately than over a prescribed time — and that coal is discontinued.”