News 4 Investigates: Century-old steam system underneath STL's s - KMOV.com

News 4 Investigates: Century-old steam system underneath STL's streets

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St. Louis unique steam system is now more than a century old.  (Credit: KMOV) St. Louis unique steam system is now more than a century old. (Credit: KMOV)
ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV.com) -

St. Louis unique steam system is now more than a century old. 

But after News 4 Investigates uncovered some scary accidents, we wanted to know is it safe, especially because you, the taxpayer, often foot the bill.

It was a beautiful night at the newly revamped Kiener Plaza this past summer.

Little did this family know, danger lurked just underneath the surface.

Two-year-old Lila's feet were severely burned when she stepped on a manhole cover that had become super-heated from steam from a leak that until then had been unknown to officials. 

“Yes it's embarrassing!” said

Gary Neal has been getting hot about the steam system for years.

The owner of Al's restaurant near the riverfront, he's complained about steam ruining his kitchen equipment.

The only fix they've ever been provided with, this giant yellow barrel venting steam outside right, in the middle of a city street.

“I've let them know that it's only a matter of time before someone gets hurt or burned,” Neal said.

And a scene from downtown last year wasn’t smoke, but steam from a broken pipe underground.

So where's all this steam coming from?

A massive and iconic energy plant that sits along the Mississippi River, just north of the arch.

From the looks of it, you might think it's no longer in operation.

But News 4 donned safety goggles, earplugs and a hard hat, to talk with officials from the company who now owns it.

Massive machines make both electricity and steam that's then pumped to buildings downtown, primarily for heating in the winter.

Who’s on the loop? KMOV, for one, and the Gateway Arch.

Taxpayers pay for steam at city hall, the city jail and the courthouses.

Through a public records request, News 4 received the most recent bill. For just one month, taxpayers paid more than $425,000 dollars for steam.

In the quiet of the Control Room, Ray Farnworth, Plant Manager, keeps a close watch.

“I am proud that I have been able to provide the steam and the service for as long as I have,” he said.

Steam is considered by many to be a green energy.

It's more convenient, building managers say to get steam supplied than to make it in boilers on their own property.

That comes with its own hazards.

Last year, a steam boiler exploded in Soulard, killing four people.

“There is a lot of pressures, very high a lot of temperatures there that can hurt you, so you have to respect it,” Farnworth said.

And Farnworth admits, their plant wasn't always managed as well as it could be.

“The former ownership was on a trajectory that appeared to me that they didn't care whether this place was operational next year,” Farnworth said.

The history here is rich, built for the 1904 World's Fair, according to Dan Dennis, VP of Ashley Energy.

“It was state of the art, the size of it, 100 megawatts of power,” Dennis said.

Over the years, various changes and a number of owners, Union Electric, for one, and now, the most recent, start-up company Ashley Energy, which acquired the system in August last year.

They’ve got high hopes to grow, though, Dennis acknowledges there's work to be done.

“There are a couple of repair jobs left over from the old company that we are going to have to jump on, once it warms up and we can afford to take parts of the system down,” Dennis said.

With the age of the infrastructure under the city, we wanted to know, should the public be worried about any dangers to the system? “No, we are in good shape,” Dennis said.

For example, Ashley Energy installed new fiberglass manhole covers in Kiener Plaza, Dennis said, to prevent burns like Lila's.

“There was a failure to recognize that something like that could happen,” Dennis said.

The area near Al's, Dennis says, will be also be repaired soon. Though, the owners tell News 4 they've heard that line before.

Dennis says with a hundred years of history here; they're hoping for a hundred more.

“We are doing our best to do the public right here,” Dennis said.

You might have been surprised by how much the taxpayers' paid for steam in that one month. On some of the biggest city buildings, the public pays more for steam than electricity and gas combined.

Richard Bradley, with the City’s Board of Public Service, told News 4 “The City’s rate is a negotiated rate with Ashley Energy. Each of the usage rates has different variables and vary from month to month based on usage and annual average.”

At least one alderman we talked to said they’d like to see a review of the rate structure.  

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