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Power plant engines slowly depart

Some of the equipment coming out of the power plant is staged just outside the building before pickup and transport. <i>Debbie Griffin photos</i>1 / 2
This hawk stopped atop a light pole at the power plant on Winter Street, paying no mind to the people just below as it hunted the nearby area beneath the dam.2 / 2

Bolt by huge bolt, a team of workers inside the River Falls power plant takes apart giant dual-fuel generator engines and all their related pipes and equipment.

The city decommissioned the plant in June 2011 after a three-year period of not needing to generate power, the prospect of costly upgrades and a deal with the city's power supplier resulted in the decision to close. River Falls began taking bids last fall on the six generators at the power plant, then sold them all late last year for $200,000 to high bidder B&T Recycling Services of Texas.

Utility General Manager Carl Gaulke and power-plant employee Brian Hatch said the company hired a team of four local people to take apart the big machines.

They separate valuable metals such as copper and aluminum and toss others into a big bin for transport. Workers also line up other parts outside the building.

Disassembly crews start at the bottom and work their way up, taking apart pipes in the basement, where oils and fluids were filtered and processed. The different pipes were already color-coded from their years of power-plant use.

Gaulke and Hatch say it's possible some of the equipment could be removed whole, for possible use, rather than removed in parts. A Canadian company had expressed interest in three units but ultimately decided not to buy them.

Previous coverage of the power plant's decommissioning process says the equipment is in good shape and was well maintained, but it is 40 years old.

Asked what kind of entity would buy the equipment, Gaulke and Hatch said they would expect it to be another power-generation plant, some kind of factory or possibly a gas company. They say the deadline for emptying the 13,354-square-foot plant is the end of the year.

"Everything that's engine related will be taken out of here," said Hatch, also clarifying that the building still belongs to the city.

River Falls' two dams and hydro generators, able to produce the equivalent of 1% of the city's power, will remain in the building.

It is expected that after the building is empty, an engineer will evaluate it before the city makes any plans for its use.

Present, past

Hatch has worked at the power plant for six years. He opens and closes the building for the disassembly crew and helps them as needed.

He is also serving as an apprentice and will become an electric technician for River Falls.

Asked how the five other plant employees fared in seeking work, he says everyone came out OK through a combination of taking other jobs both with and outside the city and retirement.

He agrees the closing of the plant means the end of an era. Workers like him began cranking out power in 1900, marked by a capstone in the oldest part of the building.

Additions to it came in 1971 and 1999 -- Hatch says that generally, the southern part of the building is the oldest.

That includes a control room with floor-to-ceiling 'lights and levers,' as well as the intact bulbs of an old colored-light warning system high on the wall.

The control room also offers power plant workers a perk most anyone would appreciate -- a back-door view of the dam, falls and Kinnickinnic River below.