Stephanie Phillips, Associate Editor
Ideology: Environmentalist | Writing From: Portland, Oregon

November’s Impacted Community Profile

In October, I wrote the first installment of a monthly “impacted community profile” series. The purpose of this series is to draw attention to the more local environmental problems associated with our excessive and inefficient use of energy in the United States. We are all aware of larger global problems like climate change, as both posed solutions and predicted consequences threaten to impact all of us. However, we are less aware of the more local impacts both in the United States and abroad associated with the resource extraction, energy generation and pollution necessary to feed our energy needs. Energy generation – particularly that sourced from fossil fuel – has a wide-range of local consequences for economies, for health and for the environment. Outside of your perspective on climate change and your opinion about its relevance, it is important to be aware of these undeniable immediate impacts of our energy consumption.

Region: Downtown Washington DC, the Capitol Complex. This region is home to a coal-fired power plant that supplies heating and cooling needs to federal buildings. coal_320x240

This community has been highlighted to serve as a symbol for all communities similarly situated within close proximity of a coal-fired power plant. The health and environmental impacts associated with these plants are felt in thousands of local communities across the United States.

Energy Type: Coal

Problem: Particulate pollution from coal combustion can cause long-term health problems, and can lead to higher premature death rates in people with lung and heart disease.

As we learned in the last impacted community profile, coal combustion is a huge part of the US energy supply. It accounts for approximately 51% of our electricity needs and provides 22% of the total US energy. Simultaneously it is environmentally disastrous from extraction to pollution. It is also highly inefficient, and much of the potential energy in coal is wasted in the combustion processes.

Pollution: When coal is burned in the process of generating energy, it releases a number of pollutants. This includes very high levels of CO2, which leads to climate change. It also includes a number of other dangerous pollutants, however, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides and particulate matter – which have much greater impacts on local communities. All of these pollutants are heavily regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act and have been categorized as “criteria pollutants,” each with negative impacts on health and/or local ecosystems.

Focusing on one pollutant in particular – particulate matter (PM) is very damaging to human health. Commonly known as ash or soot, PM is the small particle content that is released in combustion processes. Like wood, the burning of coal results in the release of small solid particles into the atmosphere. Some are large and can be seen easily (called PM10), whereas others are so small that we are completely unaware of their presence in the air (called PM2.5). When this matter is released from the smoke stack and settles on local communities, residents all inevitably breathe it in for years. This exposure leads to increased asthma rates, particularly in children whose developing lungs are more susceptible. It also leads to increased premature death rates from respiratory diseases in people with heart and lung disease. Studies have found that as many as 30,000 people every year die prematurely due to exposure from US power plant particulate emissions. 

Communities all over the country located nearby to coal plants are exposed to these risks, often unaware of what they are ingesting, and with little to no control over the presence of dangerous materials in their air. Because there are currently over 1,400 coal plants in operation in the United States, this is a huge problem for the American people.

The Capitol Coal Plant: Considering that many writers and readers of the Politicizer are centered in DC, and considering that change a shift away from coal will likely come from policies made in Washington, I have profiled one coal plant in particular – the plant that provides energy to the Capitol. While our representatives talk about progressive new policies, debate cap and trade, write health care bills and fight about the economy, our legislative buildings still use energy that comes from a coal plant located just blocks away.

This particular coal plant – the Capitol Power Plant – is located on E Street between Constitution Avenue SE and New Jersey Avenue SE. It provides chilled water and steam for many federal buildings in the Capitol Complex. Like all coal plants, it is a heavy polluter. On average, it releases 83 tons of small particulate matter a year, and 84 tons of PM10 a year, which is approximately 65% and 46% of DC total PM emissions of each type, respectively.  

This impacted community is huge. In the heart of a metropolitan area, the Capitol Power Plant emits the PM that all DC residents breathe in. This ranges from the students at the elementary schools in downtown DC, to representatives as they take their lunch breaks, to the millions of tourists that come through every year to soak in the grandeur of our capitol.

Changes to the Plant: Last year, in February, hundreds of students came together in DC for Powershift, to protest past political inaction on climate change and other environmental problems, and to demand effective legislation into the future. As a culminating action, many gathered outside of this coal plant to voice opposition to dirty energy.  Linking arms, activists surrounded entrances to the plant, refusing to let anyone in or out, demanding that it be shut down. untitled_320x240

Just days before this action, as a pre-emptive response, Nancy Pelosi announced that new generation options would be explored, and promised that the plant would be converted to natural gas. This remains a promise and has been incorporated into Pelosi’s unofficial “Greening the Capitol” initiative. However, to date the plant still burns coal and it is unclear when a conversion will take place. While we wait, the DC community continues to breathe in its PM emissions.

A conversion to natural gas will improve local health. However it is hardly the improvement we need. (Natural gas will be the subject of future profiles). Of all places, DC should serve as a symbol of commitment to the future of green energy in the United States, and the Capitol building should be powered with renewable energy. Considering this and in the name of the health of DC citizens, I urge each of you to write to your representative and demand that he or she explore options for renewable generation at the Capitol. Where better to begin a national trend of clean local generation than in DC, and what better energy source to focus on than the supply which directly aids the law-making process?