Coal truth at UVA
An email — “increased emissions from UVA heating plant” — swept through Charlottesville Monday, March 18. Sent out by City Councilor Kevin Lynch, the mailing warns of UVA’s application for a permit to increase emissions from its main heating plant on Jefferson Park Avenue near the hospital.
Lynch says the University’s large coal-burning facility is applying for permission to increase its sulfur dioxide output by 112 tons a year. He notes that UVA’s current sulfur dioxide output of 469 tons a year averages more a ton a day.
The EPA warns that sulfur dioxide emissions contribute to acid rain, health problems, and environmental change. And Lynch points out that UVA already emits over four times as much sulfur dioxide in the middle of a dense pedestrian zone as would two controversial power plants proposed for rural Fluvanna County. Lynch lists other eye-popping details about UVA’s power plant: the fact that the smokestack has no scrubbers, and that it emits 90 pounds a day of hydrochloric acid and 100 pounds per day of particulate matter.
“Are they trying to create new customers for the hospital?” asks activist Kevin Cox.
“We need to provide more steam” for new and anticipated facilities, says Cheryl Gomez, UVA director of utilities. “I hate to think of it in terms of emissions,” she says. “We just want to burn more fuel,” and that requires a permit.
Gomez says the heating plant is not installing new equipment, and everything the facility does has to comply with regulations. “We measure opacity of emissions, and we’re well within limits on that,” she adds.
So how can spewing tons of stuff into the air be within limits?
“Air permits are extremely complex,” says DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden. He adds that there are different levels of permits, and that comparing the coal-burning UVA heating plant with the proposed plants in Fluvanna (which would burn natural gas) is like “comparing apples and oranges.”
Lynch’s email claims that UVA is trying to exempt itself from air standards because it’s a nonprofit. Hayden says UVA would be exempt from federal requirements, but still has to meet state air quality regulations.
City government has virtually no say in the issuance of DEQ permits. Lynch says the University has expressed interest in using natural gas, a much cleaner fuel, but that it costs too much to buy from the city. “I hope there’d be some room for negotiation,” he says. “I certainly wouldn’t want to be an impediment to the University using gas.”
“It’s terribly expensive, terribly expensive,” says Gomez. The availability of natural gas and price volatility are other concerns. “It would have cost us an additional $3.9 million if we’d burned gas last year,” she says.
Gomez calls the permit a “non-issue” at the moment because the one on record has been withdrawn for revision, and a new application hasn’t been submitted. The process to obtain a permit can take up to a year.
Over at DEQ, Hayden says it’s too early to tell if there will be hearings on the UVA application. However, he says, “If the legal requirements are met, we have to issue the permit.”