Local activists urge for more environmental action as D.C. falls behind city goals

By Tommy Furlong

In 2017 Mayor Bowser pledged to make Washington D.C. carbon neutral by 2050. Today, Mark Rodeffer of the Sierra Club said in a phone interview, “D.C. is definitely not on track to meet the 2050 goal.”

In fact, he said, “D.C. is probably not quite on track to hit the 2032 goals” of 50% reduction in carbon emissions.

Rodeffer is an executive committee member of the Sierra Club D.C. Chapter and cochair of the Beyond Gas Subcommittee, which he said in a phone interview, “puts effort into trying to end the use of fossil fuels in buildings.”

Currently the effort has gone into preventing Washington Gas, a company that provides natural gas services to more than 1.2 million customers in the DMV area, from passing a new energy plan that would fall short of their previous agreement of going carbon neutral with the city in 2050.

“It’s just a ridiculous plan,” said Rodeffer.

Washington Gas intends on using manure gas, extracted methane from cow manure mixed with their traditional fracked gas, as their alternative to relying solely on the sale of natural gas.

“They’ve proven that they do not operate in good faith when it comes to climate change,” said Rodeffer in reference to the utility company.

We Power DC, a local coalition fighting for public power as opposed to investor owned utility companies, has their focus set on Pepco, an electric and gas utility company that serves about 890,000 residents in the D.C. and Maryland area.   

Laura Petersen who is a part of the coalition, said in a Zoom interview that “if the public has a say in what their utility is, then we would actually be able to push forward, things that are environmentally friendly and things that result in lower costs.”

Public power then, can be looked at as a chance to realign the priorities of money minded companies and focus on the issues the customers care about, such as reaching net-zero emissions. “A publicly owned utility,” said Petersen, “would give us more say in making sure that it’s actually reaching that goal.”  

But there is so much more to confronting the issues of climate change, and the greater D.C. area provides a surprisingly helpful landscape to finding and maintaining volunteers to support local and national initiatives.

Kurt Moser, president of the Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation, said, “we couldn’t even accommodate all the volunteers that wanted to come out and do kayak clean ups with us.”

With a main goal of engaging people in stewardship of an urban ecosystem, Four Mile Run puts on seasonal bi-weekly kayak clean ups, along with on-shore litter clean ups and nature walks.

The group is committed to conserving and spreading the joy of Four Mile Run Park and stream; however, the spot will always be impacted by the city growth and urbanization it has witnessed.

The Arlington wastewater treatment plant is located on the stream, the metro bus facility is at lower four mile run and, according to Moser, in the early 1900’s city and county dumps were on either side of the stream. Today those dumps are no longer there, but the Dominion transmission lines, massive power poles, run right through the stream and Reagan National Airport sits at the mouth of the stream heading into the Potomac River.

“Prior to say, well, really 15, 20 years ago,” said Moser, “Four Mile Run was definitely viewed, largely as a waste conduit.” Matched with the irreversible effects of the new construction projects that have occurred next to and in the Run, no matter the restoration projects, Moser says the area will never fully recover.

Urbanization led to the conditions that Four Mile Run sits in today, and worsening impacts will ensue if cities fail to confront the issue of city growth alongside climate change.

Payton Chung, chair of the Smart Growth Committee of the D.C. Sierra Club, said in a phone interview, “We have a responsibility to promote both human enjoyment of (land), but also to minimize the human footprint where we can.”

He points to a project that removed parking lots at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, turning asphalt into playing fields, as an example. The decision allowed for an environmental win in depaving the lot, helping to improve water quality in the nearby Anacostia River and bringing back a green space to the community. 

But the decision was something that would not necessarily fall under Sierra Club national policy. However, that when working in a city, balancing growth and environmental change often has to come off the back of compromise, and this was “the best compromise,” he said.

With this example Chung hoped to prove that while it may seem like growth and conservation are completely at odds with each other, there is actually a balance that can be struck between the two.

“It’s more of a question of where and how things are built, as opposed to whether they are built,” said Chung. Therefore, their energy is focused on promoting green building standards and net-zero energy codes, which would require buildings to have no carbon emissions.

There are pockets of progress that can be pointed to as steps in the right direction. Moser for example, said, “I can’t believe how much nicer (Four Mile Run) is now, how much more, just extraordinarily beautiful it is compared to how it was in 2001.”

Yet more work is needed if the city wants to reach its self-established goals, and these, mostly, volunteer-based organizations are aware the work can’t always be in their hands. “If D.C. really expands renewable energy, we can do it, we can meet the 2032 goal. If, we have good leadership from the D.C. government, from the mayor, and from the council in the Public Service Commission,” said Rodeffer.

Reaching the 2050 goal, said Rodeffer, will “need even better and even bolder leadership to meet that, and the current track, we are not going to meet it.”

Kurt Moser, president of the Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation, finishes placing the kayaks away after a weekend clean up that brought in 118 pounds of trash from Four Mile Run Stream.

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