Winthrop University is working on a plan to remove large fuel tanks that sit near the school’s Central Energy Plant, which creates steam that heats most buildings on campus. In the past, the fuel in these tanks has been used when natural gas was unavailable to heat the water, but the university wants to move away from using it.
“So the fuel tanks they’re number six fuel oil, which is basically a marginally processed crude oil, so it’s very dirty, has a lot of impurities in it. So when it burns, it burns with a very dark black thick smoke, which is not ideal in 2021 to be putting out of your smokestacks,” James Grigg, assistant vice president of facilities management, said. “So as a kind of project, we want to get rid of the fuel oil tanks and transition the boilers to a cleaner fuel source.”
The project to remove the tanks will cost an estimated $1.2 million, which the university received from the state earlier this year. Initial steps have already been taken, such as cutting back bushes to uncover the piping, hiring a consultant to test materials and planning for the removal of the tanks.
“It will probably be over the next year-and-a-half and in total to get to a clean site,” Grigg said. “Once we got the tanks and the pits removed, we’ll work on a landscaping plan and a redevelopment plan for the area.”
The university’s natural gas contract with the York County Natural Gas Authority was written to ensure a low rate for the university. In exchange, the company is able to shut off the gas flow to the university if the price goes above a certain threshold in a process is known as curtailment. In the 1960s, the oil tanks were installed to provide a backup power source during a curtailment.
If a curtailment occurs after the tanks are removed, the university can pay a penalty to continue to use the natural gas, reduce select heating loads on campus, such as turning off the heat to the pool, or use an electric boiler. The boiler, however, is expensive to run and will only provide steam to a portion of the campus. Depending on the specifics of the curtailment, such as expected duration and gas limits, one or more options may be utilized.
It is still possible for the university to use the fuel to power the plant, due to a permit issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, the university hasn’t done so since the last curtailment in 2012.
“While this still is a viable source to use, it’s just Winthrop trying to be environmentally conscious,” said Steven Moseley, environmental health manager. “Since my arrival here on campus – I realize that I’ve only been here a little over a year-and-a-half – at that time I identified this as one of the projects that we need to work towards removing.”
The tanks are regularly maintained to avoid leaks or spills. If a tank were to begin to leak, large pits that surround the tanks would catch any oil and automatic shut off valves would activate.
A leak would be relatively easy to manage due to the high viscosity of the oil. In order to get the oil to flow into pipes, steam would need to be introduced to heat up the oil. Therefore, according to Grigg and Chris Johnson, sustainability coordinator, there is very low chance of a spill.
“So with the number six (fuel oil), it would be a slow, if there was a leak, it’d be a slow process, and we’d be able to manage it very quickly and address it,” Johnson said. “It’s not like oil in the ocean that leaks, where you’ve got all this water and it kind of moves the oil around. It’s not quite that serious, but definitely something that we want to be ahead of.”
Test wells will be drilled around the tanks to ensure there have been no underground leaks. While above ground leaks could be dealt with relatively easily, underground leaks could have long term environmental implications.
“There’s definitely concerns with water quality, seeping into the ground, but that would take a long period of time,” Johnson said. “One example is old gas stations. A lot of old gas stations still have monitoring wells because they’re testing, making sure the soil that’s been contaminated, it’s not spreading, because it’s a very slow process for that to spread.”
Ava Senyard, sophomore dual environmental studies and political science major, said she has only heard the oil tanks mentioned in one of her environmental studies classes.
“It was not really a detailed conversation, it was a brief mention that we still had oil tanks, which is a notable thing for a campus to be having,” Senyard said. “The professor was like, ‘And by the way, we still have these oil tanks, because it is a fossil fuel emission as well as a crude oil.’ So it was just a notable part of our subject.”
She expressed frustration with what she said was Winthrop’s contradiction of being an environmentally friendly campus and maintaining oil reserves.
“It makes me a little unhappy with it, especially because Winthrop does sort of advertise itself as an environmentally friendly campus and tries to push that narrative. However, they still have natural fuel resources,” Senyard said. “Even though I do know that they are trying to get it off campus, it is something that definitely makes me a little bit unhappy with supporting the campus that is still using them.”
Senyard said she knows the people currently working to remove the tanks have not been at Winthrop very long and she is happy people are finally looking into it.
“That does mean that the current people that are working on it are definitely invested and interested in the topic. And I think that that’s very important in trying to improve that situation. But it is interesting that there hadn’t really been much of a change up until that point as it probably wasn’t a priority of Winthrop,” she said.
This story was written for and posted to The Palmetto Report on Dec. 1, 2021.