Rebuffed agencies can find other ways

When citizens win against the feds, there’s always a question: Will it make any difference?
This spring has seen two precedent-breaking cases: The Supreme Court was refused city permission to build security barricades on a public street, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was thoroughly chastised by the U.S. Court of Appeals for misreading clean-water laws on the Anacostia River.

When citizens win against the feds, there’s always a question: Will it make any difference?

This spring has seen two precedent-breaking cases: The Supreme Court was refused city permission to build security barricades on a public street, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was thoroughly chastised by the U.S. Court of Appeals for misreading clean-water laws on the Anacostia River.

This was not D.C. business as usual. When the Supreme Court decided its employees would be safer if potential terrorists were stopped by a barrier on a residential street two blocks away, Bill Sisolak, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6C member for that close-in neighborhood, reflected, “I didn’t think we had a snowball’s chance in hell of stopping it.”

But impassioned arguments brought up the specter of well-paid (and mostly suburban) bureaucrats safe in their marble temple while local citizens were blown up.

The EPA’s fate at the hands of Friends of the Earth lawyers and the stern judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals was humiliating. The environmental agency looked ridiculous when it argued that water quality in the dirty little river should be measured not every day but on seasonal or yearly averages, avoiding measurement during all-too-frequent downpours that turn the stream into an open sewer.

Judge David Tatel (a 1994 Clinton appointee) scolded the federal lawyers with a kind of joyful rage: “Daily means daily, nothing else,” he intoned.

But there is always another plan. First the EPA must reassess its position, examine options or perhaps appeal the ruling — a process of delay beloved of bureaucracies. 

And the Supreme Court’s building committee, which had devoted many hours, architects and consultants time, plus who knows how many tax dollars, is considering its options as well. It may decide to build more barriers in different places, beginning the cycle of battle all over. Or it may decide it must ask for 2nd Street to be closed entirely.

But neither agency will change course. Neither will stop pressing its objectives. The EPA doesn’t want to bring the Anacostia up to Clean Water Act standards. It’s too expensive. And the Supreme Court will continue to find a way to isolate itself from the community — perhaps with a high, bombproof wall on its own property. Local victories raise local spirits, but the power of the agencies goes on and on.

Can coal energy be reformed?

There is about 275 billion tons of coal in this country, enough at present use to last over 200 years. America has one-quarter of the entire world’s known supply of the glossy black stuff.

The problem is that everyone hates it.

That hatred is glowing with a controversy raging in Alexandria, Va., where the Potomac River Power Plant, which supplies the grid that feeds the District, is under attack from homeowners who fear pollution, soot and poisonous gases.

The plant was built in 1949 on the riverbank far from Alexandria Old Town. But the town grew toward it, notably a large apartment building, Marina Towers at 501 Slaters Lane, the hotbed of protest against the Mirant Co. of Atlanta, which owns the plant (and 25 others, four in the Washington area).

Meanwhile, of course, here on the Hill the Capitol Power Plant continues to burn coal to heat the buildings of the Capitol complex.

There is little objection to coal burning at the Capitol Power Plant. There is rage in Alexandria.

Coal, however, produces 52 percent of this country’s electricity, nuclear power 21 percent, gas 15 percent, hydroelectric 10 percent and “renewable” 2 percent, according to the Coal Utilization Research Council. It is remarkable that the two top producers of electricity are also the most objectionable.

But the coal people — who led a “clean coal” tour of the Alexandria plant Friday, are fighting to prove that their fuel is not only the cheapest way to produce electricity but acceptably clean. They’ve come up with a new technology, trona insertion, which can remove 80 percent of the sulfur dioxide from coal smoke. Trona is a plentiful mineral. Ground into powder and sprayed into hot coal exhaust gas, it bonds instantly with the sulfur compound and allows emissions equipment to trap it.

Armed with this, plus the persuasive efforts of Tony Bullock, former public-relations spokesman for D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, Mirant is making a big effort to show a smiling face and clean hands. Bullock blames “NIMBYism” for the hue and cry. Mirant has spent millions on clean-coal processes and last summer shut down the Alexandria plant because pollution levels were too high during peak air-conditioning periods.

Other proposed solutions include higher stacks to take emissions far above surrounding dwellings, new technology to convert coal to a gas that can be burned and more money for research.

The company now meets federal pollution standards. It’s doubtful whether the public-relations moves will soothe most environmental activists. Their fear is global warming fed by carbon dioxide. But as energy experts all agree, the only real alternatives for reasonably priced electricity generation is nuclear power — or cleaner coal.

D.C. vote promising

Tireless Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has every right to be proud of her compromise with Virginia Republican Rep. Tom Davis in the fight for a D.C. congressional vote.

Adding one Democratic vote for D.C. and balancing it with a Republican vote for Utah will soften congressional objections to more self-determination for our town. But enactment will have the effect of ending the fight for statehood for once and all. And some Norton backers are griping that she should have stuck to full legislative representation.

The Norton-Davis idea does not infringe on the constitutional mandate that D.C. remain a federal enclave under the control of Congress.

Of course there are already grumbles that population increase will give Utah an extra seat after the 2010 census anyway, making a Norton-Davis bill a giveaway to the Democrats; many say that this bill has no chance and is only a bit of consciousness raising.

But for the high-principled Norton, outcome is less important. The bill is another step up a long, steep hill and another proof of her diplomatic skills.


• St. Peter’s, the Capitol Hill diocesan elementary school, has snagged a $25,000 grant from the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., the group entrusted with creating development plans to connect citizens to the long-neglected river. St. Peter’s will create a “river classroom” operating out of the Anacostia Community Boathouse at 11th and O streets S.E. to study all aspects of river life. ...

•Great Streets — the program that helped 8th Street S.E. become a hot spot — has many imitators, but the D.C. City Council has put brakes on funding, chiding planners for not submitting specific street projects. Money slated for Great Streets, $9.6 million, has been shifted elsewhere. It’s not known how plans for H Street N.E. renewal is affected...

•Expect familiar local health-disaster stories when the smoke clears after Monday, the deadline for signups for Medicare prescription-drug coverage. Between 70,000 and 80,000 D.C. residents have no health coverage at all, much less drug coverage, and many of them are elderly people used to taking their troubles to the emergency room. ...

•Commission squeaker: The Hill’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B held elections May 9 to fill the seat vacated by lawyer David Sheldon, and two candidates, Diane (DeDe) Branand and David Garrison, tied, with 42 votes apiece. A drawing of lots gave the victory to Garrison, a Brookings Institution fellow and former Hill aide. ...

•Dr. Peter Shin, the hospital owner-turned-developer, was ordered by the D.C. Zoning Commission on May 8 to reduce the size of his condo campus (once old Capitol Hill Hospital) from a planned 90 feet in height. Shin is studying options for the property at 8th Street and Massachusetts Avenue N.E. ...

•Nine perfectly fluffed Hill houses were on show last weekend at the annual Capitol Hill Restoration Society House and Garden Tour, this year taking a refreshingly downscale tack; tour-goers clutching their $25 tickets were offered one free drink at their choice of five 8th Street S.E. pubs and tea at Friendship House.