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Oregon State University’s tunnels have been somewhat of a mystery. They are known for everything from haunted stories to eco-friendly ways of distributing steam and electricity. The tunnels that snake underneath OSU have been the topic of fascination for students for several years.
The OSU tunnels distribute steam which has heated and cooled campus since 1923. They are used primarily for regulating temperature in buildings, maintaining a comfortable temperature for animals and the growing of plants in greenhouses.
In 2005, because of the 50-year-old boilers and expected growth of campus, OSU recognized a need to replace the “heat plant.” The heat plant was replaced in 2006 by the Energy Center.
The Energy Center is equipped with English boilers, which burn natural gas, No. 2 diesel and biodiesel fuels, producing 82,500 pounds of saturated steam per hour at 200psi and 388 F.
The tunnels themselves are a dangerous place because of intense pressure in the steam pipes and other precarious conditions. Workers are not allowed to be by themselves while conducting maintenance or other operations in the tunnels. For safety purposes, there is a strict policy that enforces employees to carry two sets of keys while in the tunnels.
There used to be certain areas where conductors were exposed. Cages were constructed to protect workers from these exposed conductors. Not all exposed conductors have been caged.
“If you were to brush against them or get in a certain range of them, you could easily be electrocuted,” said Joe Majeski, maintenance manager at the Energy Center.
“Scary” stories are the allure of the tunnels for students. One such story crew members recalled that bones were stored underneath Waldo Hall in a 25-foot-long tunnel.
“There’s always been talk that if the doors were left open they’d get out,” said Les Walton, energy operations supervisor.
Walton has been part of this operation for 20 years and has worked his way from graveyard operator to energy operations supervisor, assisting the new developments along the way.
Even with the safety precautions, the tunnels are not to be taken lightly. Workers are retrained periodically on safety procedures and dangerous hot spots. But the creaky reverberations and eerie echo of the tunnels have sparked the attention of curious students, according to Majeski.
The myths and adventurous attitude behind breaking into these tunnels have fueled many residents’ trespassings. Entering the tunnels is forbidden and can result in a student conduct hearing.
Majeski addresses the safety concerns, which emphasizes the dangerous reality of OSU underground.
“This is not a fun place to be when the lights go out,” Majeski said. “When they go out you’re looking for that space to get out.”
Throughout the years, some students have nonetheless entered the tunnels.
“We’ve had a number of entries, and we find evidence of beer bottles … and of course the damaged lock or latch,” Majeski said. “We would really discourage people from trying that [breaking into the tunnel] because 4,160 is the lowest voltage you’re going to find [in the tunnels] … and those kind of voltages don’t take prisoners. You get one shot and that’s the end. There’s no way you’re going to survive something like that.”
The tunnels were built for the accommodation of the students.
“We realize our students are our primary customer here and try to take steps to make their four years here or longer ... really successful and enjoyable,” Majeski said.
This mentality initiated the idea of the Energy Center. It also fueled the workers with a desire to make campus more eco-friendly.
Even though it has been expressed by Majeski that they are understaffed, he brags about the solid crew they do have: Jason Lundy as a pipe and steam fitter and welder, Devin Vian as a co-generation engineer and Walton as energy operations supervisor.
According to Majeski, Walton holds everything together.
“Les is like Scotty on the Enterprise,” Majeski said.