Bangor, Maine, Approves Switch to Biodiesel Fuel

This time next winter, exhaust from the city buses idling in Pickering Square will smell like popcorn, thanks to the vegetable-based fuel in their gas tanks, the city announced Monday.

Dec. 7—BANGOR, Maine — This time next winter, exhaust from the city buses idling in Pickering Square will smell like popcorn, thanks to the vegetable-based fuel in their gas tanks, the city announced Monday.

Rather than send tens of thousands of dollars in pollution penalties off to Washington for a 4-year-old violation of environmental laws near Bangor International Airport and the city's motor pool, Bangor officials have signed a settlement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, agreeing to convert the city's fleet of snowplows, trucks and buses to run on clean-burning biodiesel by April 2005.

The biodiesel that the city has chosen is an industry-standard mix of 80 percent standard fuel and 20 percent vegetable oil. It costs about 40 cents per gallon more than standard diesel, in part because Bangor will be contracting with Irving Oil Co. to have the alternative fuel shipped from the closest supplier, which is in Massachusetts, said city equipment director Bob Dawes.

None of the 90 vehicles to be run on biodiesel need their engines retrofitted for the new fuel, but because of the extra fuel expense, it will still cost about $165,432 to run the biodiesel program experimentally for 22 months, Dawes said.

"It's good for the environment and good for the city," he said.

With the fuel switch, Bangor expects to cut between 10 percent and 20 percent of various air pollutants caused by vehicle exhaust, according to information provided Monday by City Manager Ed Barrett.

Bangor has been interested in trying biodiesel for some time, after seeing some state vehicles and L.L. Bean's fleet successfully make the transition, but the costs were prohibitive, Barrett said.

The city is willing to make the sacrifice now to avoid hefty fines for a number of violations of federal hazardous waste management and water-quality laws that were discovered during an EPA inspection in 2001.

The trade was allowed under an EPA policy established in the 1990s that allows local environmental improvement projects in lieu of paying fines that disappear into the general treasury, explained Dave Peterson of the agency's Boston office.

The full settlement agreement announced Monday includes a $59,586 fine, the biodiesel initiative, and a declaration that action has been taken to resolve the environmental violations. The total cost of the settlement — about $225,000 — will be split between the city and Bangor International Airport.

The 37 violations cited by EPA included widespread improper identification and treatment of hazardous wastes, such as paints and fuels. EPA officials also discovered a plume of jet fuel that likely leaked from an underground pipeline system as a result of the freeze-thaw cycle, according to state and federal environmental officials.

An investigation into possible effects from the pollution is under way, but at this point there is no indication that it poses any risk to drinking water or a nearby tributary of Kenduskeag Stream known as Birch Stream, Scott Whittier of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection said Monday.

The results of soil tests conducted in recent months with funding from the city and BIA are expected soon, at which point state and federal environmental officials will decide whether to take further action.

However, residents of a housing complex called Griffin Park blame their respiratory problems on pollution from Birch Stream and said Monday they are not at all satisfied with the settlement.

But scientific study of pollution in Birch Stream has been limited. And the historic Dow Air Force Base property, which now contains the airport, the city motor pool and a U.S. Air National Guard facility, contained various contaminants before any of the current tenants arrived. Decades-old petroleum products, hydraulic oils and solvents have been found and cleaned up at more than a dozen sites on the old air base, and it's not clear whether more undiscovered sites might remain, Whittier said.

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