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Capitol Trash Turns Into Virginia Power

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
The grapple crane moves garbage from the refuse holding pit to the combustion chamber as another machine pushes more garbage into the pit at Covanta Energy’s facility in Alexandria, Va., where Congress will send 90 percent of its nonrecyclable solid waste.

Sometime today, a visitor to the Capitol will throw away a plastic foam coffee cup. Next week, a Virginia homeowner will turn on a coffeemaker.

Those two events will be linked by more than java: The Capitol trash will help power the Virginia home.

Starting today, Congress will send 90 percent of its nonrecyclable solid waste to an Alexandria, Va., power plant run by Covanta Energy, where it will be burned to create electricity.

It’s the latest chapter in an ongoing fight between Republicans and Democrats in the House over handling the Capitol’s trash. Since taking over the chamber this year, the GOP has ended former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s composting program and replaced biodegradable dishware with plastic foam.

Advocates of the trash-burning initiative known as “waste-to-energy” say it’s a “win-win” that costs less while creating energy and reducing the need for landfills. These proponents include the Architect of the Capitol and leadership in the Republican House and Democratic Senate, who signed a contract last month with a vendor to haul waste to Covanta.

But not everyone’s convinced. Many House Democrats reacted lukewarmly to the proposal, saying that burning trash will inevitably put harmful toxins into the atmosphere, or that no program will ever be as effective as Pelosi’s “Greening the Capitol” sustainability program.

Paul Gilman, chief sustainability officer for Covanta, agreed a little with both sides, praising the Democrats composting but lamenting that their plan still used landfills.

“In an ideal world, you would have all three: recycling, composting and waste-to-energy,” he said.

The fight revolves around the approximately 5,300 tons of garbage produced each year in the Capitol. According to a formula provided in a report by BioCycle and Columbia University, that’s equivalent to the trash of a town with just more than 4,000 residents.

The trash will be taken to a plant in Alexandria that produces 180,000 megawatt hours of renewable electricity per year, which is used by Dominion Virginia Power to serve as many as 20,000 homes.

The modern-looking plant, built in the mid-1980s, is visible from the Van Dorn Street Metro station and is positioned within walking distance of an elementary school. It looks inconspicuous enough, and it’s hard to imagine that just 48 people work there full time, disposing of 350,000 tons of trash per year.

In fact, while cocooned within a quiet administrative office and conference room, a visitor might not realize that just past another door is the deafening noise of a mostly self-operated factory with many moving parts, including a fiery incinerator.

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