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Diesel fuel getting better grades in local school buses

Rob Amen
| Thursday, Oct. 19, 2006

Students can breathe a little easier on their way to school, even if their homework isn't complete.

School districts, trucking and bus companies, and many other diesel-engine users have started filling their tanks with a cleaner-burning diesel fuel that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expects will reduce air pollution and deliver billions of dollars in environmental and public health benefits when fully implemented.

Ultra-low-sulfur diesel hit many retail pumps Sunday, and the EPA mandated that the fuel had to account for 80 percent of refineries' diesel production by last June. Refineries currently are meeting a 90-percent production threshold, EPA spokesman John Millett said.

"When you think of a diesel vehicle at a red light, the black smoke that comes out, it doesn't happen with our vehicles," said Roger Botti, manager of assets and transportation for the North Allegheny School District. "It's definitely a positive step."

Ultra-low-sulfur diesel contains 15 parts per million sulfur compared to traditional diesel, which has 500 parts per million sulfur. The EPA proposed the new regulations in 2000. Seven years earlier, the agency mandated the reduction of diesel fuel's sulfur content from 5,000 parts per million to 500 parts per million.

"The whole idea is to reduce emissions in the environment," said Bruce Dakan, business manager at Penn Hills School District.

But it comes at a cost.

The new fuel costs about 20 cents more per gallon than traditional diesel, despite the EPA's estimation that manufacturing the fuel only costs refiners an additional four to five cents per gallon.

At North Allegheny School District, which uses about 200,000 gallons of diesel a year, that's an extra $40,000. Plum estimated its additional diesel costs at $20,000.

Dakan said the Penn Hills district would spend an extra $50,000 this year in diesel. "But the point is, $40,000 here, $20,000 there, $15,000 over there, everything adds up," he said.

In an effort to reduce costs, local districts have banded together with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit to buy the new diesel fuel in bulk.

Districts can further decrease emissions with pollution-reducing filters or diesel catalytic converters, which Penn Hills, Plum and North Allegheny added to all or some of their buses in recent years with federal and local grants.

All new diesel engines built beginning in 2007 will come with up-to-date pollution controls, according to the EPA.

Catalytic converters cost the Penn Hills School District about $150 each, which added up to more than $12,000 for the district's 83 buses, Dakan said.

Laidlaw Education Services contracts with about 50 local school districts and logged more than 2.5 million miles last year on its more than 1,600 buses, said Bernie Vardzel, Laidlaw Education's director of maintenance.

One of the bus company's biggest concerns was flushing out enough of the old diesel from their storage tanks to remain compliant when the ultra low sulfur diesel shipments arrived.

"You got to get about three to five deliveries in your tanks to flush out your old fuel," Vardzel said.

Some Laidlaw buses had problems with their injection pumps after diesel sulfur content dropped from 5,000 parts per million to 500 parts per million, Vardzel said. But the bus company hasn't experienced any problems since this most recent change, he said.

"I don't think it's going to be a problem," he said.

The EPA is requiring that ultra low sulfur diesel fuel be the only diesel refined and sold for on-road use by December 2010, the agency's Millett said.

Once that happens, the ultra low sulfur diesel will annually reduce nitrogen oxides by 2.6 million tons and particulate pollution by 110,000 tons.

"Engines will run little bit cleaner," Millett said. "Fuel with less sulfur poses less problems."

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