Sierra Club

Release date: September 19, 2012

Street Light Campaign Fights Light Pollution: Problems and Opportunities in DC's Outdoor Lighting (by Amy Weinfurter, new volunteer) 

An Example of Effective Lighting: Shielded lamp posts prevent light from escaping into the sky.


Light pollution may not be the first thing to come to mind when strolling around the District after dark.  However, wasted brightness from Washington's streetlights and buildings creates significant threats to the city's public health and its environmental and financial bottom lines.  "There are so many adverse consequences; the obvious waste of energy, increased air pollution, and the impact on wildlife and human health," explained Jim Dougherty, the Executive Committee Conservation Chair and Legal Chair of the Sierra Club's D.C. Chapter, and the spearhead of its Streetlight Campaign.  

While useful street lighting plays a crucial role in making neighborhoods feel safe and walkable, Dougherty estimates that over 90 percent of the D.C. area’s lighting is wasted and harmful.  This poor lighting is excessively bright, cluttered needlessly close to other light sources, or placed too high above the street it is supposed to illuminate. 

The resulting light pollution confuses wildlife by disrupting navigation and other behavior. For instance, urban lighting disorients nocturnal birds that rely on the moon and night sky to navigate.  Counter-intuitively, too much light can actually make it harder for human pedestrians and drivers to find their way around as well.  Bright lights can trigger "disability glare," which causes observers to avert their eyes from the intensity of the light source, and reduces the ability to see contrasts and colors.  If implemented incorrectly, lighting intended to keep streets safe can actually make it harder for drivers and pedestrians to see. 

An Example of Wasted Lighting: Excessive and redundant light poles on a Washington, DC street.  


Excess lighting also poses threats to human health; studies indicate light pollution interferes with chemical reactions that remove exhaust fumes from the air.  Scientists have also been giving increasing attention to light trespass – the intrusion of outside light into unwanted spaces, such as homes and bedrooms.  

Exposure to light and dark is key to setting the circadian clock, the 24-hour cycle of biological rhythms that regulates hormone production, activities in the central nervous system, and cell regulation. A report by the American Medical Association noted that "even low intensity night-time light has the capability of suppressing melatonin release," and affecting other activities regulated by the circadian clock. While research is ongoing, the potential impact on melatonin is under especially close investigation, since this hormone "serves as a circulating anti-cancer signal and suppresses tumor growth" in various laboratory models of cancer.    

Fortunately, there are several practical, effective solutions to light pollution.  Shielding the tops of streetlights, reducing wattage, and spacing light sources strategically saves money and energy. The D.C. Chapter's Street Light Campaign began nearly two and a half years ago, when volunteers met with District Department of Transportation, City Council, and Department of the Environment officials to discuss ways to implement these practices.  The International Dark Sky Association provided technical support to help chapter volunteers make their case with city officials. 


In recent years, the campaign's efforts and the shift towards more sustainable lighting have gained momentum.  The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) recently began a "pilot program to identify the next-generation lighting technology it will deploy to replace the current mix of high pressure sodium, incandescent, mercury vapor, and metal halide street lights." The Climate Action Plan for the District of Columbia includes a suggested timetable for replacing all of the District’s older lights with these more energy-efficient alternatives, which include induction, light-emitting diode (LED) and solar-powered models.  Based on this plan, street light improvements would save 10, 791 metric tons of greenhouse gases by 2020, and 32, 374 metric tons by 2050.  In total, DDOT predicts these changes could cut emissions from street lights by 70 percent.  

To the right is an example of effective lighting:shielded lights illuminate a parking lost in Washington, DC.  By using a low wattage, they avoid creating visibility-reducing glare.

The shift to more energy-efficient models would also generate savings on maintenance and energy costs. The Canadian city of Calgary, for instance, sees an annual return of 1.7 million dollars on their recent switch to a more efficient lighting model.

An example of wasted lighting:  excessively tall poles prevent light from reaching the sidewalk and street below.


Homeowners or businesses can achieve similar benefits by purchasing low-wattage lights, installing light shields, and utilizing timers to light their properties more efficiently.

While Dougherty and the other members of the campaign find these trends encouraging, they emphasize the need to keep moving forward, and the District's potential to act as a flagship city for healthy lighting. "If we start the dominoes on this issue in the nation's capital, we hope it will inspire others to join in similar action elsewhere.  Washington, D.C. is an ideal laboratory for social change," Dougherty summarized.  To learn more about ways to support or volunteer with the street light campaign, contact Jim Dougherty at, or Brenna Muller, the D.C. Sierra Club Chapter Outreach Coordinator, at and 202-548-4581.

For additional information, see:  Climate Action Plan for the District of ColumbiaInternational Dark Sky Association, and McDonald Observatory's Dark Skies Initiative.


DC Streetcar.jpg

DC Streetcar Initiative (by Gordon Shetler, new volunteer)

Street cars are returning to the streets of Washington D.C. for the first time in more than 50 years.  The first stretch of track along the H Street corridor will be operational by the summer of 2013. Since the program started, the Washington D.C. chapter of the Sierra Club has been working closely with the mayor, the city council and community members to make this milestone a reality.

"Street cars will bring a lot of benefits to the District," said Ryan Crowley, D.C. Chapter Transportation Committee Chair of the Sierra Club. "Street cars are quieter, more efficient and cheaper to maintain than busses. They are also economic drivers, generating new investment, jobs and bringing new households to the neighborhoods they serve. "

The Washington D.C. chapter has been advocating for the program since it began in 2009. The transportation committee has been an integral part is moving the project forward; volunteers have held public forums and met with members of the D.C. Department of Transportation to advocate for more funding and worked hard to keep the project moving. "In February, we even had one of our volunteers testify before the D.C. council about the importance of street cars," Crowley said. "Our efforts have led to some major victories and the entire project continues to gain momentum.  The committee also hosted a booth at the H Street Festival on September 15.  

The DC Department of Transportation says that "The DC Streetcar will make travel within the District much easier for residents, workers and visitors, and it will complement the existing transit options. Although the Metrorail system does an exemplary job of connecting the District to the rest of the region, it was not designed to connect neighborhoods. The DC Streetcar will do just that and will bring tremendous benefits to the communities it serves."  For the latest information on DC Government's Streetcar project, visit External Website.

Objectives of the DC Streetcar project include:

  • Link neighborhoods with a modern, convenient and attractive transportation alternative.
  • Provide quality service to attract and reach new transit ridership.
  • Offer a broader range of transit options for District residents.
  • Reduce short inner-city auto trips, parking demand, traffic congestion and air pollution.
  • Encourage economic development and affordable housing options along streetcar corridors.

In addition to working on the street car project, the Transportation committee is involved in all aspects of transportation issues in the District including Metro, bicycling and walking infrastructure.  The committee is always looking for people who are interested in transportation issues and want to be a part of the committee. Transportation committee meetings are at 7 p.m. on the first Tuesday of every month. For more information, please contact Ryan Crowley at


SierraClub hike Rock Creek Park.jpeg

DC Chapter Takes a Hike in Rock Creek Park

On Saturday, August 18, DC Sierra Club member Sankar Sitaraman led an approximately 8 mile hike through some of the environs of Rock Creek Park, from the entrance near Porter St. NW going north to around Military Rd. and back.  We had 18 participants, some from the hiking groups Wanderbirds and Nature Lovers meetup, and other non-club members who read the announcement for the hike on our website.

Highlights of the hike included a stop by Pierce Mill (a restored historic grain mill operated by water power from the Creek), Fort deRussy, the Nature Center (containing exhibits on the local flora and fauna), and getting our photo (shown below) posted on the Rock Creek Park facebook page.  If anyone else would like to lead a local outdoor activity, just let us know and we can post your announcement on our website! 

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Kayak Outing

On Wednesday, August 29, the DC Chapter sponsored a fun kayaking outing with 16 members enjoying a beautiful evening on the Potomac.  Memorable moments included spotting a Golden Crowned Night Heron, and hearing the legend of "The Three Sisters", three small rocky islands just south of the Key Bridge. Everyone enjoyed meeting new Sierra Club friends while enjoying a view of the city from the river. Join us for our next kayaking outing, to be posted on our website.  


Chapter Member/Outreach Meeting

The DC Chapter held a quarterly Member Meeting on August 22nd, engaging twenty-two members and new volunteers. Board members and Committee Chairs gave updates about various campaigns and work the Chapter is currently involved in, and Laine Cidlowski from the Office of Planning presented about the Sustainable DC initiative. Thanks to everyone who came out!  Chapter leaders plan to schedule another similar meeting this Fall.



GenOn Power Plant Closing:  an update (by Rick Nunno)

Last year, the DC Sierra Club was heavily involved in the effort, led by the Virginia Chapter's Sierra Club, to shut down the Potomac River Generating Station (PRGS), a coal fired power plant located in Alexandria, VA.  PRGS (formerly owned by Mirant Corp.) is currently owned and operated by an electriciy generation company called GenOn, which also owns other coal, natural gas and oil generation facilities throughout the United States.  PGRS has been in operation since 1949. 

After a long battle with several community and environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, and after several violations and fines were imposed by the EPA and the city of Alexandria, in August 2011, GenOn agreed to shut down its operations at PRGS by October 2012.  One of the factors that might have influenced GenOn's decision was a letter that DC Mayor Gray sent to GenOn earlier in 2011, complaining about the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and other toxic gases and particulate matter that emanated from the plant across the Anacostia River and entered Southeast DC neighborhoods.  The letter also pointed out a likely correlation between that toxic pollution and and the higher levels of athsma and lung diseases among residents of those DC neighborhoods compared to other regions.  The DC Chapter was instrumental in convincing the Mayor to send the letter. It should also be mentioned, however, that economic factors might have weighed heavily in GenOn's decision to close the plant, given the diminishing prices for electricity obtained from natural gas in recent years in energy markets.  In addition, the regional grid operator, PJM, certified that it no longer needed the GenOn facility to maintain a reliable energy supply to the region.  

While everyone in the DC and Virginia Sierra Clubs celebrated the announcement last year, some people asked why GenOn had to take another year to shut down the plant.  

According to the city of Alexandria, on July 3, 2012, GenOn confirmed that the retirement date for the PRGS will be October 1.  On July 22, GenOn announced that it will merge with NRG to form one of the largest electricy generation companies in the country, but that PRGS will still close as planned. Now with another year under our belt, we're still waiting for the final belch of toxic air to be released from the Plant.  Will there be a celebration in Alexandria? Will the DC Councilmember representing Anacostia neighborhood issue a public statement of gratitude?  Will the GenOn executives get a lump of coal in their stockings?

And what about the remaining local coal fired power plant here in DC on Capitol Hill that supplies steam and cooled water to the U.S. Capitol and other buildings in the Capitol Complex?  The high rates of toxic particulates produced by that facility (e.g., lead, mercury, SO2, NOx...) are well documented. The DC Chapter needs activists interested in promoting cleaner technology for the Capitol Hill power plant to improve efficiency and reduce air pollution. We aim to convert the Capitol Power Plant into the most efficient and clean power station in the country - beginning with moving Beyond Coal. Contact Energy Co-chairs Larry Martin ( or Nicole Sitaraman ( to get involved.


Sierra Club Means People Power (adapted from a couple of articles in the Virginia Sierra Club's newsletter: the Old Dominion Sierran written by Catherine Welsh and Phillip Ellis)

People come to the Sierra Club in many ways, whether through signing a petition at a farmers market, going on a hike, or even clicking on a video or You Tube like These are the people we want to recruit to our local events and activities. We’re looking for people to learn about environmental issues in the District and to take the lead in a Chapter campaign to advocate our positions.  Much of this work can actually be done from your home in your spare time.  All you need is a computer with Internet access, dedication, inspiration, and a little training.  

One initiative that is making great strides in the Virginia Chapter is something called "The Truth Squad".  This is a group of volunteers who are writing letters to the editor (LTEs) to a variety of local newspapers in Virginia raising concerns about various environmental issues.  As of July, they had produced 73 LTEs and got over 20 of them published.  This activity can be extremely useful in educating the public and rallying support on important issues.  While the Virginia Chapter is much bigger than ours, we have many of our own issues as well as areas where we can cooperate with them.  We're not expecting to get a letter published in the Washington Post on our first try, but there are many smaller locally oriented papers that may welcome input from us.  If anyone with decent writing skills is interested in giving it a try, contact Brenna Muller at with your idea.  


Shrinking Our Daily Water Footprint (by Suzanne Smith Sundberg, a member of the Mt. Vernon Group of the Virginia Sierra Club)

Those who depend on well water conserve this precious resource by necessity. But for those of us who depend on municipal water, we rarely give consumption a second thought—until we open our water utility bills. Experts agree, however, that potable water shortages (water used for drinking, bathing, and cooking) are not only possible, but likely.  Below are a few, easy indoor water- and money-saving strategies you can try right away:

  • Use a dishpan.  An old-fashioned solution, to be sure, but adding a finite amount of water to a dishpan (rather than washing dishes under a running tap) saves water. It also allows you to soak heavily soiled dishes, making it easier to use less water when rinsing them. If you don't want to buy or use a dishpan, insert a stopper into your sink's drain instead. And remember, automatic dishwashers may reduce water use, but not if you rinse your dishes first. (Tip: Limit what you put in your garbage disposal. Grinding food in a disposal uses lots of water. Food waste is a nutrient pollutant that places added stress on already overburdened wastewater treatment plants. 
  • If you don't compost food scraps, then scrape uneaten food into the trash before washing dishes. Keep in mind that allowing grease or fat to enter your drain will clog not just your pipes, but also municipal sanitary sewer pipes—clogs that your tax dollars will be used to clear.
  • Install aerators on faucets and showers.  Inexpensive low-flow aerators add air to a faucet's water stream, increasing the pressure while decreasing the amount of water being used. Look for a gallon-per-minute (gpm) flow rating of 2.75 or less when shopping for an aerator. Kitchen models often include the option of switching between aerated and nonaerated modes. Low-flow showerheads work on the same principle as aerators. According to, showers account for approximately 22 percent of individual water use, and consumers can reduce water consumption and heating costs by 50 percent when they install a low-flow showerhead. (Tip: Some new faucet aerators are screenless to prevent their becoming plugged with sediment. To maximize water savings, continue shutting off the tap while brushing your teeth and whenever water isn’t needed.) 
  • Save water by the flush.  Many standard 3.5 to 5-gallon toilets have been replaced with 1.6-gallon lowflow varieties. But if you still have a standard toilet, you can place a weighted and sealed plastic bottle in your toilet tank to reduce water use. Read the complete step-bystep installation instructions at wikiHow: Making this simple change can save you hundreds of gallons of water each year. (Tip: Newer model low-flow toilets, and dual-flush models, work better than older versions. If you want to swap out an older low-flow or standard toilet, read the consumer reviews first to ensure you select a toilet that meets your household’s needs.) 

For a list of 100 other water conservation tips, visit Water Use It Wisely at


Upcoming Events

Following is a selection of upcoming chapter events. For complete listings and details, visit our calendar   

Friday, September 21, 6:00 - 8:30 p.m., Eco-Fundraiser for Phil Mendelson, Chairman of the DC Council and a candidate for re-election to the same position. Sierra Club Office, 50 F Street NW, Eighth Floor. Hors D'oeuvres and beverages will be served. Suggested donation of $25 or more.  RSVP here, or contact Jim Dougherty at 202-488-1140.

Wednesday, September 26, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m., DC Chapter Energy Committee meeting.  Sierra Club Office 50 F St. NW, Suite 800.  Agenda will include a presentation from a member of the Maryland Chapter on MD offshore wind legislation, a presentation on an effort to reform Pepco, and updates on ongoing projects.

Thursday, September 27, 6 - 7:30 p.m., Kayaking outing. Jack's Boathouse, 3500 K St. NW. everyone welcome! Show up between 5:45-6:00 p.m. to get gear ready to go. We'll hit the water around 6:15 p.m. 

Friday, September 28, 10 a.m., to Sunday September 30, 6:00 pm, Green Festival DC.  Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Mount Vernon Square metro stop.  The Sierra Club will have a booth at this exciting event, and there are still volunteer slots open for those who are interested in helping us "table". If you'd like to volunteer with the Sierra Club, please RSVP to this email.  For more info about the festival, see:

Tuesday, October 2, 7 - 8 p.m. DC Chapter Board Meeting.  Harriet's Family Restaurant, 432 11th Street NW.

Tuesday, October 2, 6:30 - 8:00 p.m., Transportation Committee meeting.  Sierra Club Office 50 F St. NW, Suite 800.

Saturday, October 6, 22nd Annual Metro DC Tour of Solar Homes and Buildings, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m..  Tour includes 65 energy efficient homes and buildings in DC, Maryland and Virginia.  Get a "passport" (admission to the Tour) for $5 at Bicycle SPACE and the Bike and Roll bike station at Union Station and other participating distributors.  See for tour guide.


Looking for a hike or other outdoor adventure?

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