Hot makeover: Coughing up $50 million for heat

The UVA heating plant is making some citizens nervous. In early 2002, when the university applied for a permit to burn more fuel and increase its emissions, neighbors learned the plant already was spewing out more than a ton of sulfur dioxide each day. And in January 2003, when temperatures dipped, the old boilers cranked up and covered the Venable neighborhood with tarry soot.

So what's in store this winter?

Not another soot bath, pledges UVA director of utilities Cheryl Gomez, who describes that incident as a once-in-50-years occurrence, when the two biggest and newest boilers crashed at the same time. "The odds of that happening again are pretty low," she predicts.

More promising is an update of the 1950s-era facility located near the corner of Jefferson Park Avenue and Main Street. "We had a master plan prior to the soot incident," says Gomez. And if all goes well, Gomez hopes, construction could begin in early to mid 2005.

It's that "if" that has neighbors worried.

"Big plans mean nothing unless you have the money red-lined in the budget," says Edgar Gunter, a once-smudged Gordon Avenue resident who is also an engineering school professor emeritus.

And bringing the university's half-century-old power plant up to 21st century speed will cost about $50 million, according to Gomez.

The master plan calls for replacing coal-burning boiler #1, circa 1950. Other boilers will be converted to burn cleaner oil and even cleaner gas. Additional pollution-control equipment and scrubbers are part of the package.

"The proposed project will result in significant reductions in emissions, in particular SO2s and particulates," says Gomez.

Gunter remains skeptical. "When they bring it up to standards, is that normal standards or what they can get away with?" he asks, perhaps remembering UVA's attempt to skirt federal air standards in 2002 because it's a nonprofit.

"The University of Virginia can get by with what normal industry could not," he says. "Being a state institution, they're given a lot of slack."

Gunter is particularly hacked about the long-term effects on young and the old from living near a power plant, and says there's plenty of statistical evidence showing lung problems in school kids living near plants in urban areas. He also notes that oxides in the emissions contribute to acid rain, and that soft coal is the largest source of mercury pollution in the country.

UVA applied for an air permit in March with the Department of Environmental Quality. "They're requesting burning increased fuel," says Sharon Foley, regional air permit manager, "but the air pollution controls will reduce emissions." She expects a public hearing later this year before the permit is issued.

In July, UVA hired a design firm, and now it's looking for a construction management firm to handle the project, which Gomez calls "complicated."

Part of the need to burn more fuel is fueled by the university's hefty expansion plans over the next 20 years. One major project that the heating plant won't be warming is the new $130 million arena, mainly because it's "incredibly far from the farthest reach of our steam tunnels," explains Gomez.

And while donors are happy to put their names on new buildings, even the rich seem unenthused about putting their name on a new boiler.

"You won't see any famous alumni names on a plaque at the heating plant," says City Councilor Kevin Lynch. "UVA doesn't like to pay for infrastructure because infrastructure isn't sexy."

So in this cash-strapped state, who will pay for the $50 million upgrade? The university will pay part, some funds will come from the hospital, and "We've asked the state to kick in their share because they're all state buildings," says Gomez.

Lynch– who first alerted the community to UVA's eye-popping quantity of emissions– is dubious. "I can tell you that one day I will have a yacht; I just haven't worked out the money to pay for it," he comments.

To skeptics, Gomez insists upgrading the heating plant is a priority for the university, both to meet its projected growth and to be in environmental compliance. "This is going to be done," she declares. "We will come up with the money."


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