The Story of the Vet School Incinerator

18 09 2008

So, I enjoy telling a good story as much as the next guy, and this one was actually the subject presented by my professor in an air pollution course I’m enrolled in. I might have been the only one taking notes on this, because it was meant to merely illustrate an argument, it’s historical, and an interesting piece of history worth sharing.

So, in the early 1990s, The Vet School over on the East Campus had a problem. A large number of carcasses were being generated daily. Dissections, disease studies, putting some of the farm animals to sleep, etc. So on any given day, thousands of pounds of carcasses were being produced, and they had to be disposed of.

Well, Cornell, for all the things it does have, does not have an incinerator for cremation on any of its properties. So they would have to ship the carcasses out in container trucks with hazard labels and send them to an incinerator elsewhere in the county, where they could be properly disposed. As you might imagine, this built up quite a hefty amount of fees over time. So Cornell began to explore their options to alleviate the problem.

Well, the proposal that seems to work best was to build a waste disposal facility for the animal carcasses directly on the property. The site that was determined to be the best fit was just to the east of the Vet Research Tower. At this time, the Vet Hospital’s main building and the East Addition didn’t exist, so the complex was mostly barns, the tower, Schurman Hall and the scattered add-ons that comprised the property. The red square below was the approximate location for the project.

 The Vet Tower is a fairly large building, as it stands about 140 feet tall. So, in order to build the smokestack, the design had the smokestack stand about 180 feet tall, more than enough to clear the building.

Well, it went ahead in front of the town of Ithaca, and the residents of the neighboring hamlet of Forest Home had a fit. They’d be damned if they had to look at a giant smokestack from Cornell. So Cornell paid an engineering firm to survey the land from notable viewing radii to see if the structure would impose on the residents of Forest Home. Sure enough, if did, but only just barely. It was determined that if the design was shorter, it’d be okay.

So, Cornell proposed changing it to 160 feet. But, there was another issue with that. Bradfield Hall, just up the road, stands 167 feet tall. And the top floor has windows (ironically enough, the atmospheric science department is housed at the top).  So, that wasn’t going to fly unless Cornell did an air pollution study to prove it wouldn’t affect the occupants of Bradfield.

Well, here’s where we get into an issue. The company they hired, a New York-based engineering firm, decided that the air circulation patterns in Ithaca were the same as Syracuse. Syracuse built a power plant only a couple years earlier, so they decided to reuse the same data and apply it Ithaca. Essentially, they tried to swindle Cornell by selling them false data from another location.

Winds generally blow out of the west in Ithaca. However, in the situation where they would blow out of the east, as during some stormy days caused by east-coast lows, the pollution cloud was going to push over to Bradfield Hall and towards central campus. This pollution would have particulate matter that would drift down onto Tower Road and the Ag Quad. Well, no ones wants to be snowed on by cremated animal ash. Even worse, if it blew out of the northwest at a particularly strong clip, it was going to drift right over Forest Home. The increased height would have allowed it to carry farther away, but the new shorter height would cause particulates to fall a shorter diestance away, and they would be more concentrated, to unhealthy levels.

Well, the university didn’t know that at the time, so they bought the data. And it wasn’t until the final stages of the project that the mistake was realized (through an interdepartmental study independent of the project). The Town of Ithaca wouldn’t give final approval in light of the news. Well, Cornell was just a little upset, so they decided to bring a lawsuit onto the company for their actions, and Cornell had to scrap the 160-foot plan.

Well, due to the air ciruclation patterns and sight lines, a large smockstack just wouldn’t be suitable for their desired location. And Cornell was already set for a major expansion of the Vet School, so they scrapped the plan entirely. The Vet Education building, built in 1993, was the final incarnation of the incinerator project, in which there was no incinerator at all. And the large Vet Hospital would be built four years later, dooming any future proposal nearby.

So, some of you might be wondering about the heating plant, which is to the south. The smokestacks there are outfitted heavily with scrubbers, so the vast majority of the smoke is water vapor, and not nearly as toxic as the smoke from the vet school smokestack would have been.


And in other news, House 5 has been deemed “Flora Rose House”, after a professor who was among the first to staff the school of Home Economics (Human Ecology).



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