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City's plans to purchase natural gas vehicles raise environmental questions

Thursday, August 30, 2012 | 2:43 p.m. CDT; updated 12:26 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 19, 2012

COLUMBIA — While Columbia citizens debate whether to introduce roll carts into Columbia's trash collection system, city officials are trying to keep another idea for the city's vehicles from getting tangled up in the controversy. 

If passed, City Manager Mike Matthes' fiscal 2013 budget would increase the city's solid waste budget by $3.5 million to purchase 10 roll-cart garbage trucks that would be fueled by compressed natural gas. The city also would buy 10 natural gas-powered buses with a $2.66 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration. The new vehicles would replace eight diesel garbage trucks and 10 diesel transit vehicles.

Natural gas trucks would cost $40,000 more than diesel-powered ones, but buying the 20 vehicles would save the city an estimated $150,000 a year. That's because a gallon of natural gas is about $1.40 cheaper than diesel, Public Works Department spokesman Steven Sapp said.

It would also reduce the city's dependence on foreign oil sources and price shocks, Sapp said.

"Compressed natural gas is abundantly available in the United States," Sapp said. "It has a bit of a made-in-America label to it."

At the July 2 meeting of the Columbia City Council, Matthes said the decision to buy natural gas vehicles is separate from that of converting the garbage fleet to handle roll carts.

"You don't have to do both. You can do one or the other," Matthes said at the meeting.

At its Aug. 20 meeting, the council passed a motion by Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl to put the money for roll-carts into a contingency fund. The council will have to vote to release the money.

Kespohl said he doesn't want to inhibit funding for natural gas vehicles. "I think it's a good idea."

The idea has sparked its own debate, however. Monta Welch, executive director of the Columbia Climate Change Coalition, spoke against the purchase of the new vehicles at the council's Aug. 20 meeting.

Although Welch acknowledges natural gas emissions are cleaner than those of diesel, she objects to the process of extracting it.

"It's an extremely polluting process," Welch said. "People are getting ill from this. We cannot afford to contaminate our water supplies."

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called "fracking," involves pumping pressurized fluids into underground shale deposits to create fractures from which natural gas is extracted. The pressurized fluids are "water-based" but also contain "chemical additives," according to a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy by the Ground Water Protection Council.

The Environmental Protection Agency website lists contamination of drinking water as a "known risk" of fracking. The Safe Drinking Water Act has set restrictions for "well siting, construction and operation," according to the website.

Welch would prefer that the city buy trucks powered by electricity.

"We've been thought of as a forward-thinking, progressive city," Welch said, referring to an ordinance Columbia voters passed in 2004 that required the city to receive 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2022. "We need to continue with this way of thinking."

Sapp pointed out that every energy source has its environmental downsides. A hybrid electric truck would have to charge its battery with power coming from coal or nuclear plants, and oil production causes conflicts around the world, he said.

"Our goal is to be environmentally friendly where we can," Sapp said.

City officials have been speaking with Clean Energy Fuels, a company based in Seal Beach, Calif., about building a natural gas station in Columbia. State and federal funds would pay for the station, Sapp said.

In addition to fueling Columbia's vehicles, the station could serve natural gas vehicles from other areas of the state. There are natural gas stations in St. Louis and Kansas City but none in between, Kespohl said.

"Other fleets will need a place to fuel, which Columbia is well-situated for," Sapp said.

According to the budget, the city would save $1.1 million a year by converting all 353 of its vehicles to natural gas.

"We would do it through an attrition process. A couple a year," Sapp said.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.


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