Excuse my smut: UVA cranks the heat

Gregg Kendrick noticed black marks on his children's clothing. Brad Jones saw a black substance on his car. And Deloris Goins' kids asked, "What's this black stuff? This snow is so dirty."

Throughout the Venable and Cherry Avenue neighborhoods, witnesses reported a sooty film. Many eyes turned suspiciously toward the UVA power plant.

On January 20, after phone calls from Venable residents, UVA spokesperson Carol Wood sent an email to the neighborhood explaining the source of the soot.

Two of the university's primary boilers went down in the main heating plant on January 16, when temperatures dipped into the teens. To keep the hospital warm, heat was cut off to administrative buildings, and two remaining boilers– one gas and one coal– were "worked hard" until repairs were completed at 3:30am January 17, according to Wood's email.

UVA doesn't believe that any EPA rules were violated but acknowledges that "more soot settled on parts of the Venable neighborhood than any of us would have wanted," Wood wrote, adding that the blocks around 14th Street and the Gordon Avenue Library– north of the Jefferson Park Avenue plant– were hit heaviest.

UVA instructed Venable residents to call Barbara Palmore at 924-3850 with questions and concerns. By 1pm January 21, the hotline had received "six or seven" calls, says Wood, including a couple from other neighborhoods.

The Department of Environmental Quality, which is already pushing the university to reduce emissions from the antiquated power plant, received at least one complaint over the long weekend and sent an inspector to the heating plant January 21.

"There are provisions that allow for excess emissions during malfunctions," says the DEQ's regional air permit manager Sharon Foley, who added that she did not know the details yet from the DEQ inspector.

Jones calls the black rain "tarry" and "very messy." When he handled a piece of wood covered with the soot, he says, it left residue all over his hand, and "It took some scrubbing to get off." And he's worried about the health hazards of breathing the stuff.

Kendrick describes it as a "very oily ash, very difficult to clean. And it was everywhere"– houses, cars, pets, and plants. He's investigating the hazards of the "mucky, ashy film" and how to clean it.

Is the soot a health hazard? "So far we've heard it is not," says Wood. "It's very similar to chimney smoke."

The DEQ's Foley says that until she hears from the inspector, she can't say whether the blanketing poses a health hazard for residents. In general, "particulate matter emissions are regulated because they can potentially cause health problems," she concedes.

Jones has the soot on his skylights, and Kendrick doesn't know if he'll have residual property damage from the enveloping ash.

Goins was able to get the substance off her car when she went to the carwash January 20. "It was smutty, very smutty, like old-fashioned coal dust," she says.