Byron Nichols does not consider his job to be detrimental to his health.
Nichols has worked at Virginia Tech’s coal-powered power plant for 27 years and is currently the associate director for utility systems there.
“I haven’t had a single issue,” he said. “I feel perfectly safe working here.”
But in August, a perfectly healthy freshman, Haley Fuller moved into Thomas Hall — a dorm directly across from the same plant. The freshman biological systems engineering major has a different story from Nichols
“I had never really been sick in my life,” Fuller said. “I go to Thomas Hall and I first break out with a virus that gave me hives all over my body. But most notably was the sinus infection that I had that continued for about a month.”
After several visits to both Schiffert Health Center and the hospital, Fuller was diagnosed with pneumonia — something her dad figured might have had something to do with her proximity to the power plant.
Some people are concerned Fuller’s story is not the only one like this and claim living in such close proximity to a coal fired power plant is causing health issues not seen in residents in other dorms,
These claims are not entirely without support. According to the American Lung Association, coal-fired power plants produce over 380,000 tons of air pollutants each year, making up over 75 percent of U.S. acid gas emissions, including hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride.
These gases do have negative health effects on the human body when exposed for long periods of time at reasonable doses.
The average Tech student, however, can breathe easy.
The Efficiency Trade-Off
The Tech power plant is more efficient than most other plants in the area. Average plant efficiency is calculated by dividing work produced by heat supplied, which for most plants only produces about 35 percent efficiency.
Because Tech is a combined heat and power plant, waste heat is used to heat campus, meaning Tech’s power plant is about 82 percent efficient.
This high level of efficiency is one of the primary reasons Tech has not switched from coal to natural gas.
“If we burn gas, we could produce steam, but not electricity,” Nichols said. “What that means is that we would be shifting electrical production off of a plant that’s 82 percent efficient, and take it to a plant that’s 35. Emissions are based on input, so those guys have to put a lot more fuel into the boilers to get the same output we do.”
The two deairators, working in parallel, remove the dissolved gasses from the water — mostly oxygen — which is necessary before it goes back into the boiler. At 480 degrees, which is the temperature of the steam when it’s recycled, oxygen is saturated at about 600 psi, which is highly unstable. The plant can mechanically remove steam up to 3.5 parts per billion, and the rest is moved chemically.
It’s because of this process that steam comes
out of the roof of the building.
Moreover, due to the height of the smoke stack, it is near impossible for any of the pollutants to reach the lungs of the average student.
Emissions and plant efficiency, however, are not all that those who oppose the power plant dislike.
Coal Dust Causes Problems
For many, the main concern is the large amount of coal dust blown off the pile of coal outside the plant and into the window’s of residents of Thomas Hall.
“Coal comes in on trucks,” Lowe said. “It’s dumped in the coal yard, and there will be some dust associated with that because of the dumping. Then, when the facility uses it, there’s a front-end loader that will pick up coal and put it in the hopper. It’s then moved inside the building and stored to where it will feed the boiler. There is some spillage; It’s an industrial facility — industrial facilities create dust. Burger King across the street is creating dust too.”
Mike Cannon, an industrial hygienist at the power plant, said dust is also created when trucks are moving in and out of the yard. Nichols said there are housekeeping efforts done to minimize the amount the coal in the air to as little as possible.