Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal

It is true that for the first couple of years while I worked as a summer help at the Coal-Fired Power Plant that Coal Cleanup was performed on weekends by volunteer He-Men that wanted to make a few extra dollars.  Of course, as a summer help, I needed all the extra money I could get.  My wages during the first year (1979) were $3.89 an hour.  This jumped to $5.84 an hour when I worked on the weekend, so you can imagine the thrill I had at receiving a paycheck that included the extra money made by doing “Coal Cleanup”.  Another great advantage to doing coal cleanup on the weekends was that I was able to carpool with different people.  So, during the first summer instead of just riding to work with Steve Higginbotham, I caught a lot of rides with real Power Plant Men like Dale Hull, David Hankins Jerry Mitchell and Marlin McDaniel (Yeah.  Marlin McDaniel as an A Foreman would volunteer for coal cleanup some times.  Maybe it was when we were short a few people).

Coal Cleanup really became important during the second half of the first summer because Unit 1 was getting ready to go online.  There was a major flaw in the Coal Conveyor logic when the conveyors first started conveying coal from the coal pile to the coal silos just above the bowl mills.  What would happen was the same thing that happens if someone were to fall down at the top of a crowded escalator going up.  Everyone behind that person would be shoved right on top of them if there wasn’t an emergency stop button to stop the escalator.

Escalator

All the conveyors had a safety cord alongside the entire length that could be pulled to stop the conveyor in an emergency, but this was something different.

To give you an idea… once the coal on the coal pile has been fed onto either Belts 4, 5, 6 or 7, from there the coal is dropped onto either belt 8 or 9.  That carries the coal up to the coal Crusher which has a bin above the crusher that can be filled with coal.  If the bin gets too full, then conveyor 8 and/or 9 would stop.  When that happens, belts 4, 5, 6 or 7 should stop also…. only they didn’t.  Belts 8 and 9 continued dumping coal into the crusher bin until it filled up and then coal fell out all over the top of the crusher tower around belts 8 and 9 until the coal tripped the belt by hitting the safety cord on the side of the belt.  Belts 4, 5, 6 and 7 continued dumping coal onto belts 8 and 9, which caused the coal to backup and spill out all over the floor until the coal piled up high enough to trip the safety cord on the side of the belt.

In the picture of the power plant on the side of this post, there is one long conveyor that goes from the coalyard to the plant.  It is about 1/2 mile long.  This is where belts 10 and 11 carry the coal from the crusher, which crushes the coal down from big pieces the size of baseballs down to the size of walnuts.

The long belts 10 and 11 were like these only they are in a metal enclosure so the coal didn’t spill out on the ground.

At the top of the Transfer tower the coal from belts 10 and 11 are dumped onto belts 12 and 13 which carry the coal up to the Surge Bin Tower where the coal is dumped into the Surge bin.  Now when the Surge Bin fills up, it stops belts 12 and/or 13 and it should also stop belts 10 and 11 and the feeders that feed the coal into the crusher at the bottom of the crusher bin… only they didn’t.  They continued dumping coal into the Surge bin, which filled up and spilled coal all over the surge bin until belts 12 and 13 tripped, at which point, coal began spilling out all over the transfer tower filling up both floors of the transfer tower with tons of coal.  The same thing would happen at the bottom of Belt 10 and 11, where the crusher feeders kept feeding coal down to belts 10 and 11, which spilled out all over the bottom floor of the crusher tower.  I have worked in the transfer tower where the coal was higher than the windows and you had to bend over because your head would hit the ceiling on the floor at the foot of belt 12 and 13.  It was almost dangerous enough to picture yourself sliding down the pile of coal and slipping right out one of the windows (which had been broken out by the pile of coal).  To give you an idea of what this felt like, it was then a straight drop of 150 feet to the concrete below.

If that doesn’t seem like enough coal spills, then picture this…  The coal from the Surge Bin tower fed onto belts 14, 15, 18 and 19 which in turn fed onto belts 16 and 17, 20 and 21.  These last 4 belts were in what was called the “Tripper Gallery”.  These 4 belts would dump coal into 12 coal silos (6 on each unit) that would feed the bowl mills. These are big silos about 5 stories tall.  The same thing would happen to these belts leaving piles of coal at the bottom of the surge bin in the surge bin tower and all along the tripper gallery because when the coal silos were full, the tripper was supposed to move to the next silo and dump coal until it was full, and keep moving until all the silos were full.  Only, the tripper wasn’t working correctly, so it wouldn’t detect that the silo was full so the belt would keep dumping coal and would end up spilling coal all over the entire tripper gallery which runs about 100 feet or so.

So, our first experience with doing coal cleanup was like being on a chain gang where we shoveled coal from morning until night trying to clean up these 15 or so major coal spills by shoveling the coal back onto the conveyor while it was running.  In some cases, we had to shovel the coal away from the belt before the belt could even run (as was the case with belts 12 and 13).  So, you can imagine how shoveling coal one scoop at a time made it seem like you were not getting anywhere fast.  3 or 4 men could all be shoveling on one pile of coal for 30 minutes and not even make a noticeable dent in the pile.  That is why when I went to the tool room to choose a shovel, instead of picking a regular shovel, I picked a large scoop shovel used to scoop grain.

Scoop Shovel

Regular Shovel

Even though each scoop of coal was heavier, it seemed more satisfying to see the bigger dent in the pile of coal with each shovelful.  I remember one day after we had shoveled coal all day from morning until late at night only to come back into work the next morning to the new piles of coal just as big as the ones we had shoveled the day before.

After 2 years of volunteer coal cleanup which was becoming less volunteer and more rotational since the list of volunteers was growing smaller, Ray Butler pointed out that it didn’t make much sense to pay a first class machinist overtime to shovel coal when you could create a labor crew and pay them bottom dollar to do coal cleanup all the time, as well as other dirty jobs that no one really wanted to do (such as suck out sewage pits and other sump pits around the plant).  That was when the Labor crew was formed.  While I was in my 3rd year as a summer help (1981).  Bill Cook was a summer help then that stayed on as a labor crew hand at the end of the summer.  By the 4th summer as summer help, the only time we did coal cleanup was when there was a major spill, which was only a couple of times all summer.

It was during those days during the first summer when I was able to catch a ride with David Hankins a couple of times.  He was the crane operator at the time and drove a black Trans Am.  He was a black man with a very broad chest that never seemed to tire while doing coal cleanup.  From the first day he always treated me with great respect which in turn gave me a great respect for him.  I had him classified as a true Power Plant Man.

The second summer when I had been back at the plant for a couple of weeks, one day when Jim Heflin and I were going somewhere in a yellow Cushman cart, I asked Jim where David Hankins was.

Like this only Yellow

I hadn’t seen him around.  Jim (who hadn’t been there the first summer) stopped the cart in the middle of the road and looked at me very solemnly and told me that David Hankins had died in a car accident.  He had been going home from a Men’s Club event when he was killed.  Because of this, alcoholic beverages were no longer allowed at Men’s Club events.  As with all the people I have worked with at the power plant, I keep David Hankins in my memory and I often think about him to this day.  He was a True Power Plant Man.

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5 responses

  1. We’ve lost so many friends over the years, in the plants and on the line, especially when they were relaxing on their way home. You, and David’s family have my 9very belated) condolences.

    Somebody, somewhere, needs to teach engineers a course on Conveyor Logic 101, I’ve seen the same thing happen in nearly every plant (from automotive, rarely, to meat packing, often) I’ve been in. Or they could, just for once in their life, shut their pie-hole and listen to people like you and me.

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    1. Thanks Nebraska.

      We were often exhausted while driving home from work when we had been working a lot of overtime. It was a wonder sometimes that we were able to keep the car on the road.

      My uncle Bill Breazile worked for the Utility company in Nebraska City where someone closed a breaker while he was working on a line. He was in the hospital for about 6 months healing from his burns. This was about 30 years ago. He has since passed away. It takes a special person to be a lineman. Putting their life on the line every time they reach out to do their job.

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      1. Not that different from you. It’s all about planning your work, and doing it right, and safely. You and I know that 480 will kill you just as quick as 7200 if you get careless. That’s why almost all (old) linemen and electricians are in some sense stolid and unexcitable.

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  2. Industrial America returns in stories and comments in places like this, from the only place it still exists: the minds of those who were part of it. Industrial America was a giant; those who manned it were giant tamers and it seems to me, very much the special breed illuminated in these posts…

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    1. Thank you Jack! I appreciate your comment.

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