USC will build a $17 million energy plant that relies on wood chips to produce heat for campus buildings, but neighbors worry the plant will pollute the air they breathe.
Some neighborhood groups say they were kept in the dark until after DHEC permitted the plant last August. Many people want to know more about soot and other pollutants from the plant at Whaley and Sumter streets.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control will hold a public meeting at 6 tonight at City Hall to discuss community concerns. DHEC says the plant will increase some pollutants, but the releases are within legal limits.
"There is still concern that a lot of people don't know about this and don't know what is going on," said Beth Herron, president of the Hollywood-Rose Hill Neighborhood Council, which borders the campus. "People have concerns about the potential health impacts. People also have quality-of-life concerns, especially associated with the traffic."
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USC's plant is part of an effort to use energy more efficiently and reduce heating costs at the downtown campus.
Called a "biomass" plant, the facility uses wood chips to heat campus dormitories, classrooms and offices. The chips are heated at high temperatures inside the plant after a reduction in oxygen levels, which produces steam for heat.
Switching from natural gas to wood chips as a fuel source could save USC nearly $2 million a year in energy costs, university officials say. Initial savings would be used to pay for the plant.
The 35,000-square foot facility is the only plant of its kind in the country and is on the cutting edge of efforts to reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels for energy, USC officials said this week.
Eventually, university officials estimate, the biomass plant will produce 85 percent of the steam needed to heat campus buildings. It is in the early stages of construction.
Chips needed to fuel the plant would come from waste wood produced at sawmills or from limbs left in the forest after trees are harvested, according to plans. The chips would be trucked to the plant on a regular basis.
"Getting away from fossil fuels to a renewable energy source is a very positive, very green thing to do," said Rick Kelly, USC vice president for finance. "We are excited about being on the leading edge of this."
Kelly, who lives near the campus and the biomass plant, said he isn't worried about air contamination.
Nonetheless, the plant will produce tons of legally permitted air pollution each year if operated to full capacity, according to DHEC.
And in at least one case, the plant will release more particulate matter - small, soot-like particles - than the university's existing energy production plants, said Rhonda Thompson, director of DHEC's air toxics division.
Initial projections show particulate matter emissions would be about 39 tons per year. She did not have figures for other campus plants and cautioned the 39-ton-estimate could change after the plant is in operation.
"We do believe there will be an increase in particulate matter, but we're don't know the extent at this point," Thompson said.
DHEC permitted the biomass plant because the facility met existing state and federal air pollution standards.
Agency officials say they bought legal advertising last summer to tell the public of the USC proposal. No one submitted comments, so the agency did not hold a public hearing.
Bob Guild, president of the Granby Mills neighborhood association, said the university should have done more to notify the public of the proposal, other than just the legal notice. By the time many people found out, the plant was already approved, Guild said. Other neighborhood residents expressing concern live in the University, Wheeler Hill and Wales Garden areas near the campus.
USC officials say they have gone out of their way to inform people since the permit was issued, and even delayed the start of plant construction until this summer.
"We had a permit, and we could have gone ahead and done this thing last year," Kelly said.
But Guild said that doesn't solve the problem some neighborhood groups have. Because the permit has been issued, people can't force tougher pollution controls at the biomass facility, Guild said.
"I put the onus on USC," he said. "They tell us after it is a done deal, and now people can't do anything about it."
Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.