Downtown GR steam plant explosion leads to closures

A window was blown out after an explosion at the Veolia Energy plant in downtown Grand Rapids Monday, Dec. 25, 2017.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A boiler blast blew out several windows at a steam plant in downtown Grand Rapids Monday night.

It happened around 11:30 p.m. at Veolia Energy, located at 50 Monroe Avenue, near Van Andel Arena.

Grand Rapids firefighters told 24 Hour News 8 that a boiler inside the plant malfunctioned. A worker went to start up another when what’s called an “economizer” exploded.

Veolia officials said the employee was taken to the hospital to be check out but was not injured.

After the explosion, the system was taken offline while workers investigated the cause of the explosion.

After 5 p.m. Tuesday, the company released an e-mail saying “steam services have been restored to critical customers and the company is working to bring the rest of the system online.”

The plant produces steam which heats and cools around 130 buildings in downtown Grand Rapids. As of 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Mercy Health Saint Mary’s campus was still without heat, so the hospital was diverting emergency care for patients to other hospitals “to ensure that patients are able to be seen as soon as possible.” The hospital will continue that plan through Wednesday and is cancelling all elective surgeries scheduled for Wednesday.

The Grand Rapids Public Museum was also closing at 11:45 a.m. because of the lack of heat.

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“The system is safe and reliable. People coming into town or work tomorrow shouldn’t have concerns. We won’t put the public in harm’s way,” said Veolia general manager Perry Alburg.

City officials say a lane of southbound Ottawa Avenue SW between Weston and Fulton streets will be closed between 10 a.m. Tuesday and 3 p.m. Wednesday as crews work to repair the damage from the blast. Drivers will also encounter some parking restrictions in that area.

The second floor was the coldest because it is most exposed to the cold.

The public employees stayed on the job as temperatures in the buildings dropped to the 40s and 50s.

“You can’t just close the doors and let people go,” said Grand Rapids City Treasurer John Globensky. “I wish I could, I would.”

The Grand Rapids Public Museum closed its doors just after lunch.

“We figured that at about 1:30 is when we’d need to close our doors because it’d be pretty chilly in the museum,” said Michael Posthumus, vice president of learning at the museum.

The timing was unfortunate.

“It’s one the busiest two weeks out the museum’s season,” he said.

The exhibits are expected to be ok.

“It’ll be a relatively short period of time, there’s no real significant threat to those objects, if it were an extended period of time, we’d be more concerned,” Posthumus said.

Those who came to spend some holiday break at the museum took it in stride.

“As they were leaving, we were giving them some comp tickets so that they could come back and have another museum experience with everything that we offer including 68 degrees,” Posthumus said. “We fully anticipate be open tomorrow with full heat.”

Posthumus said despite today’s events, he likes steam heat.

“Actually I wish there were more ways that other residences could get on the boiler line because it is so efficient and easy to work with. This is a pretty freak accident,” he said.

Crews continue to work on the building at 50 Monroe Avenue.

But 23-year-old Nate Charron found himself as the only driver on this road at 11:30 p.m. Christmas night.

He said he heard the explosion which he thought was him hitting a pot hole.

“I didn’t really know it was an explosion at first until I noticed that everything just falling down on my car,” Charron said.

But when he got a chance to pull over, he saw the car’s damage.

“I looked in my rearview mirror and saw that window was blown out,” Charron said.

But there was more.

“I saw the big hole in the roof, yeah it’s just really unfortunate, bad timing,” Charron said.

He said it could have been worse.

“I just feel pretty lucky that it happened in the rear of the car and not going through the sun-roof or the windshield, so it’s very lucky,” Charron said. “I called 911 and they said they were getting multiple calls about the explosion.”

Charron only had the 2005 Audi for a year, and now it’s totaled.

**A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Grand Rapids City Treasurer John Globensky’s name. It has been corrected.