The story you're about to read has all the makings of a sleazy tabloid exposé. It's trashy. It's steamy. And if that wasn't enough: it's happening in our backyard.
In fact, our story begins right here at NASA's Langley Research Center, where I'm boarding a bus with a group of folks who are headed just a hop, skip and a jump down Wythe Creek Road to get a behind-the-scenes look at the nearby Waste-to-Energy Plant.
The Waste-to-Energy Plant is a joint venture between NASA Langley and the City of Hampton. The plant has been in service since 1980. The boilers there burn all the trash from NASA Langley, Langley Air Force Base, Fort Eustis and the cities of Hampton and Poquoson — enough to provide 75 to 80 percent of the steam at NASA Langley.
Credit: NASA/Sean Smith
On the way over, we get the dirty details.
A joint venture between NASA Langley and the City of Hampton, the plant has been in service since 1980. The boilers there burn all the trash from NASA Langley, Langley Air Force Base, Fort Eustis and the cities of Hampton and Poquoson — enough to provide 75 to 80 percent of the steam at NASA Langley.
What’s more, earlier this year, a handful of NASA Langley and City of Hampton employees won a Federal Energy and Water Management Award for an initiative that increased the use of steam energy produced at the plant and simultaneously reduced the use of steam produced at NASA Langley's fossil fuel-powered plant. That initiative saved NASA Langley more than $500,000 in natural gas costs.
Tour organizer Joan Hughes, who works in NASA's Environmental Management Office, is just finishing telling us about the group that went to the White House to accept the award — "They didn't get to meet the President or the Vice President," she says, "but they got to meet the dog" — when the bus pulls up to the edge of the plant's tipping floor.
While we wait for our tour guide to arrive, some of us crane our necks, hoping to get glimpse of the mountains of trash inside. Others make small talk.
Then the bus door opens.
Even on this mild October day, the stench slaps you silly. Imagine bobbing for rotten apples in a tub of hot dumpster juice — a stadium-sized tub.
It's enough to instantly whisk away any regrets I might've had about waiting until after the tour to eat lunch.
"This is a good day," says someone at the front of the bus. "You come over here in July or August on a rainy day when it's really warm — it's really bad."
I'll take his word for it.
Of course, the foul air is all part of the job for plant manager John MacDonald, who we first meet when he pops his head in the bus door.
"Why are you guys so resistant?" he asks. "Come on out!"
After we make our way off the bus and put on our safety glasses — What? No gas masks? — MacDonald explains that the facility is in partial shutdown mode for a semi-annual tune up of one of its two big boilers. The amount of trash we'll be seeing on our tour is only about half the 240 tons they deal with on a normal day.
That's still a lot of trash.
Inside, on the tipping floor, a garbage truck is dropping off a fresh load. Compared to the colossal mountain of trash behind it, the truck looks puny. Overhead, a crane operator manipulates a giant claw that mixes the newer, wetter trash with the drier trash that's already been there for a couple of days. Once the operator has a good mixture, MacDonald explains, he'll lift up a clawful and drop it into one of two hoppers that feed the boilers' furnaces.
Those furnaces are where we're headed next. As the door to the tipping floor shuts behind us, we trade the wicked tang of relatively fresh trash for something I never thought I'd be so happy to smell: burning trash.
And this trash is burning at fierce temperatures. Through a small, thick window on one of the furnace's heavily insulated doors, we get a glimpse of the inferno raging inside. According to MacDonald, the hottest part of that fire is burning anywhere between 2000 and 2400 degrees.
In order to light those fires, plant employees use a simple method. They soak rolls of toilet paper in kerosene, set them on fire and throw them in.
"You guys are all high-tech space guys," MacDonald says. "We don't worry about that so much."
The boilers (and the process of lighting them) may be low-tech, but the electronics that monitor the system aren't. In the plant's control room, we're greeted with a sophisticated-looking bank of computer monitors — "state-of-the-art, 21st-century technology," MacDonald says.
Here, technicians can control the entire system with the click of a mouse. Among other things, they monitor the emissions escaping the plant's 240-foot stack — emissions like sulfur dioxide and carbon. If the plant were to receive a load of plastics and the crane operator didn't mix them in well enough, the resulting emissions might be enough put the plant out of permit.
"That's why they can monitor our permit requirements right here in real time," MacDonald says.
Plastics aren't the only potential problem. The metal springs in a mattress can melt and gum up the inner workings of the boilers. Glass is a troublemaker, too. It melts, but doesn't boil off. Instead, the molten glass sticks to the surrounding trash and turns into what MacDonald calls a "clinger." Those clingers upset combustion.
Machines sort out any detritus that comes out of the boilers. If it's a ferrous metal, the plant sells it off to be recycled. Ash goes to the landfill. Some of the more oddball items end up on a shelf in MacDonald's office — and that's where our tour group makes its last stop.
Over the years, MacDonald has collected quite a few strange items. Bowling balls are a particular favorite of his. Because the acrylic on bowling balls melts at different rates, they come out in a crazy variety of shapes.
"One that I got the other day melted odd," MacDonald told us earlier in the tour. "It has a snout, so it looks like a bowling ball opossum."
Now that we're standing right in front of it, I can see the resemblance. Other items on MacDonald's shelf include a Chinese stress ball, a section of a rifle barrel, a spoon that came through with almost no damage at all, a singed document and a bullet casing.
By "we," he means the four teams of five men who work in 12-hour shifts to man the plant 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
I can't help but think of those folks as we board the bus back to NASA Langley. After a quick hour at the plant, I sniff my arm, just to see if that smell is clinging to my skin. How plant employees deal with that stench for 12 hours at a time is beyond me. Regardless, after getting a behind-the-scenes look at the plant, I have a lot of respect for what they do.
I also have plans to go home and make some steam of my own — by taking a hot, soapy shower.