Wednesday, May 12, 2010
A tale of two Umass buildings
Tilson Farm Steam Plant (also called "Paradis Boiler Plant" located near Orchard Hill)
The new state of the art co-generation plant on Mullins Way, using low sulphur diesel fuel, natural gas and effluent (gray water) from the Amherst Waste water Plant located nearby produces both heat and electricity.
Original coal fired steam plant built in the late 1940s; slated to be replaced in 1974 by Tilson Farm.
In fact, the old warhorse coal plant was under pressure from the EPA to shut down in the early 1970s so perhaps that urgency pushed Umass officials to become reckless in bringing on-line the new Tilson Farm plant too early. The coal fired steam plant, continued operation until about two years ago.
View old power plant in a larger map
The difference between the new $138 million Umass co-generation heating/electrical plant on Mullins Way and the old $9 million Tilson Farm steam plant is as stark and simple as a light switch: one switched on and it worked, the other turned on and did not.
The Ward Commission, charged with investigating public building contracts during the 1970s, concluded that the Tilson Farm steam plant fiasco was an all too typical byproduct of the greed and corruption ingrained in the system of awarding state government building contracts. Essentially the foxes had free rein in the henhouse with little to no oversight.
According to an abstract of the Ward Commission published in the Boston Globe (1/3/1981):
"The $9 million steam power plant is a white elephant - now standing idle because the 1.5-mile pipeline designed to carry steam to the campus contains irreparable defects caused by backward operation during startup. After $96,492 paid to contractors produced neither a solution of the problem nor even identification of its cause, workers renovated an old plant at a cost of over $2 million. Meanwhile, attempts to "mothball" the new plant resulted in corrosion of valves and pipes."
The "backward operation" probably seemed like a clever cost saving idea at the time: pulling steam into the plant from the older one located 1.5 miles away to heat it during the first winter of operation.
Attorney General Francis Bellotti eventually won a $970,000 lawsuit against the building designers but by then the $9.3 million steam plant was abandoned. A "Building Condition Report" done by staff at the office of Administration and Finance dated 5/26/09 estimates $5 million in demolition costs for the 19,000 square foot plant, although no such action is imminent.
A recent inside tour shows the derelict four story building to be remarkably well preserved:
Perhaps a lasting legacy of the powerless powerplant is reflected in the shiny exterior of the new co-generation plant built 35 years later. As State Senator Stan Rosenberg, President Pro Tem of the Massachusetts Senate (D-Amherst) points out: state officials had learned a hard, expensive lesson.