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Diesel plant suffers 'significant malfunction'

Becky Vargo • Jul 25, 2017 at 1:36 PM

Heavy black smoke filled the air and soot landed on the ground downwind as the Grand Haven Board of Light & Power ran some tests at its Harbor Drive diesel plant Tuesday morning.

The municipal utility’s power supply manager, Erik Booth, said some new controls were installed on the old plant recently and testing was planned for Tuesday.

Puffs of the black smoke could be seen on and off throughout the morning as crews ran the tests.

Grand Haven Department of Public Safety crews responded to the plant early Tuesday afternoon when the black smoke covered Harbor Drive in front of the plant and across from the Coast Guard station. 

People calling Central Dispatch thought there was a commercial fire, but Booth said there wasn’t one.

Booth explained that the pilot runs on fuel oil. When that gets to a certain power level, workers can throw a switch and convert to a different fuel. The power never got to that level on Tuesday, he said.

Officials decided to stop testing early in the afternoon until they could determine the problem.

The power company’s administrative services manager, Renee Molyneux, released this statement later Tuesday: “Early this afternoon there was a significant malfunction while operating the last remaining engine in the Grand Haven Board of Light & Power Diesel Plant, which caused a plume of black smoke to cascade over the downtown area. Plant operators took immediate action to safely take the unit down and will be troubleshooting the engine and controls to determine the reason for the malfunction. There was no fire in the building and no injury to any of the plant staff. The (Michigan) Department of Environmental Quality was also made aware of the engine malfunction and resulting smoke from the plant.”

Molyneux said the engine was installed in 1974 and that it was designed to start up on diesel fuel, then convert to natural gas.

“New controls were installed in June 2017,” she said. “The engine has been operated at various times since the new controls were installed with no issues converting from fuel oil to natural gas and very little smoke coming out of the stack from the startup of diesel fuel.”

Tuesday’s malfunction “unfortunately” resulted in a significant amount of smoke that carried ash particles from the combustion of diesel fuel, Molyneux said.

Meanwhile, Bill Latta, a resident of the adjacent Sandpiper condominiums, showed up and told Booth that there was soot all over the place. Latta was already cleaning outdoor furniture with a power washer when the soot started to fall.

Booth said the power company would work with the neighbors on cleanup.

“The Board of Light & Power sincerely apologizes for this issue and accepts full responsibility,” said the utility’s general manager, David Walters. “We encourage anyone with a complaint or health concern to call our staff at 846-6250. This is our community and we care very deeply when these events occur, and will be taking every measure possible to ensure that they do not happen again.”

Grand Haven Board of Light & Power serves approximately 13,700 customers in the Grand Haven area.

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