By Walter Lesczynski

Eastern’s coal burning power plant, which provides heat for the campus, has been described in a budget request to the state as “obsolete and dilapidated”. University officials say a replacement may not feasible for ten years or more.The current budget does not address upgrading the plant, but in its 2008-2014 capital plan, Eastern has requested five million dollars to replace two coal-fired boilers which have been in use for almost 50 years.

The proposal to renovate and upgrade the heat plant offers a frank, if dismal assessment of the facility’s condition: “The boiler equipment and associated emissions control equipment are obsolete and dilapidated in spite of several years of concerted effort to keep it operational.”

This project will replace two coal-fired boilers that were originally installed in 1960 and 1964 with modern equipment that allows more efficient and clean operation.

Constructed in 1909, Eastern’s central heat plant marks its 100th birthday this year. The plant’s aging equipment was updated a few years ago with new emission controlling units after failing several stack tests.

“The tests demonstrated that we needed to do something,” said James Street, director of Eastern’s Office for Capital Planning and Facilities Management.

The university is aiming for a complete replacement with more modern technologies, “but that may be ten years off,” Street said.

Since installing the new bag house units, at a cost of 2.2 million dollars, emissions of dust, ash and sulfur dioxide from the plant are well below state guidelines.

The plant, which burns six to seven tons of coal per year, is easily recognized by its smoke stack next to the Fitzpatrick Building.

It operates only about half of the year, generally from October thru April. Three of its four boilers burn coal. The fourth, installed in 1994, uses natural gas, and serves primarily as a back up.

In a state known for its extensive coal deposits, only one major school in the Commonwealth, Berea, has made the transition to natural gas. UK, Louisville, Moorehead and Western all use coal.

“Using coal for energy on campus is clearly the least expensive method,” said Stewart Farrar, a professor in the geology department. “This is the wrong year to change energy sources. With the budget cuts we barely have enough money to continue running the campus.”

While natural gas burns cleaner, with fewer emissions, it is not without drawbacks, including efficiency and price.

“Coal is one third as expensive as electricity or gas,” Street said. “The downside is its environmental impact.”

That impact is not lost on the environmentally conscious population at Eastern, so don’t change the school colors to maroon white and green just yet.

“Listen, it might not be Chernobyl, but I would like to think my tuition dollars aren’t all being converted into greenhouse gases,” said Courtney Daniels, a music major from Cincinnati. “A lot of us care about the environment.