WASHINGTON — The 99-year-old Capitol Power Plant, which provides steam for heat and hot water in congressional buildings, is ending its distinction of being the only coal-burning facility in the District of Columbia.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Friday that the switch to natural gas as the sole fuel source used at the plant was part of their efforts to reduce the carbon pollution impact of Congress on the nation's capital.
"The Congress of the United States should not only be a model for the nation, but also a good neighbor," Pelosi said.
The two Democratic leaders have for the past several years initiated steps to make the Capitol grounds more environmentally friendly. But moves to change light bulbs, use less paper and buy fuel-efficient vehicles have in some respects been overshadowed by the smoke that continues to rise from the power plant about four blocks south of the Capitol.
The D.C. government has complained that the plant worsens air quality and has affected the respiratory health of residents and workers in the area, particularly children.
The plant last year operated on about 65 percent natural gas and 35 percent coal. Pelosi's office said the plant has not burned coal since March and would continue to go without coal barring problems.
Acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers cautioned in a letter to Pelosi that work still needed to be done to upgrade the natural gas pipelines. He said coal might still have to be used as a backup in circumstances where heating needs exceed capacity of the natural gas pipelines, when abnormally cold conditions increase demand or when there are equipment outages.
The Capitol complex would not totally end its dependence on coal. Electricity is supplied by a local utility company that uses coal as a power source.
Ending the use of coal at the power plant has met some resistance from coal state lawmakers, who have said it sends the wrong message about the possibilities of clean coal.
But Hill Residents for Steam Plant Conversion, a neighborhood group, has urged Pelosi and Reid to move quickly to stop using coal at the plant, saying it was a major source of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate air pollution.