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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.