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A Breath Of Fresh Air: Ending Coal Use In DC

To visit the largest single source of carbon emissions for Washington, D.C., you don’t have to travel far. Just walk four blocks south of the Capitol and look for two smokestacks, marking the location of the Capitol Power Plant.

This inconspicuous building has been a serious point of contention between local environmental and community groups and government for years. The reason? The Capitol Power Plant burns fossil fuels, including coal, in the middle of the D.C.’s residential neighborhoods.

Right now, the plant continues to be a major contributor of carbon emissions and adds pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and soot into the air of the Southeast D.C. But the good news is that change may be on the horizon.

The History Of The Capitol Power Plant

The Capitol Power Plant was built in 1910 to generate electricity for the Capitol complex, from the Library of Congress to the Supreme Court. It hasn’t produced the Capitol’s electricity for decades, but it continues to provide heating and air conditioning in the Capitol complex. That blast of warm air you love as you enter a Smithsonian museum in the winter? Thank the Capitol Power Plant.

For most of its history, the plant burned coal — the fossil fuel with the largest carbon emissions and the most severe public health impacts. But in 2009, environmental groups and community members demanded an end coal use in the plant, holding a rally with thousands in attendance.

While the plant has burned significantly less coal since then, it has not ended the use of coal completely. The plant holds coal in reserve for times with abnormally high demand — in response to extreme events like the recent polar vortex, for example. Coal is now about 5% of the plant’s total fuel, with the rest either natural gas or diesel fuel oil.

Health And Climate Impacts

Just because the amount of coal the Capitol Power Plant is burning has declined, doesn’t mean the health risks have disappeared for nearby neighborhoods. The American Lung Association reports that burning coal produces dangerous pollutants which are known to increase rates of asthma, lung disease, cancer, and stroke.

Some Southeast D.C. residents near to the plant can recall days where soot falls from the sky. But there is no onsite monitoring in the neighborhoods, so specific data on local impacts is hard to come by.

It isn’t just D.C. that faces repercussions from the choice of fuel at the Capitol Power Plant. For serious risks associated with coal production, look no further than the disastrous leak in West Virginia on January 9th 300,000 West Virginians without drinking water. And fracking for natural gas has the potential to contaminate groundwater and even cause earthquakes.

Of course, burning any fossil fuels will continue to release large amounts of carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change. In 2007 alone the plant released as much carbon as over 22,000 cars in a year.

Change On The Way

In 2013, the Capitol Power Plant received all permits to build a new natural gas-burning facility that would allow it to run 100% on natural gas. And 18 months after the new facility is complete, the plant will no longer be permitted to burn any coal at all. Although construction of this project has yet to begin, this plan means that the Capitol Power Plant may be coal-free within the next few years.

So for the near future, the Capitol Power Plant will continue to be able to burn coal in the heart of the city. But the end of coal in D.C. may be in sight.

Written By Dawn Bickett

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1 comment

  1. Caroline

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