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Companies, officials debate methane fuel plan

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State Sen. J.B. Powell defends the last piece of legislation he had a hand in -- an amendment that would have prohibited governments from making waste haulers run their trash trucks on clean-burning methane gas -- as an effort to protect the "little guy" and draw the public's attention to a problematic proposal.

Methane gas generated from rotting trash in a closed cell at the Augusta landfill is collected and processed for sale.  Zach Boyden-Holmes/Staff
Zach Boyden-Holmes/Staff
Methane gas generated from rotting trash in a closed cell at the Augusta landfill is collected and processed for sale.

"It was communism," he said Friday. "All over Richmond County, they understood what I was saying."

Solid Waste Director Mark Johnson and Augusta Administrator Fred Russell proposed in March that the fuel requirement be included in the city's new five-year contract with its waste haulers.

At the Capitol, lobbyists for Georgia's waste haulers, large and small, told him it would increase their operating costs and ultimately drive up prices for consumers, Powell said.

But not everyone around Augusta, including some in the business of hauling the city's trash, agreed with Powell. Some see the plan, part of an effort to convert a landfill byproduct into cleaner-burning fuel, as a no-brainer, particularly with the Augusta area on the verge of gaining nonattainment air quality status from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Cities around the United States have converted fleet vehicles to run on CNG as a way to reduce carbon emissions, found in vehicle exhaust. Carbon emissions also are the raw materials for ozone, the main ingredient in smog. Augusta is barely in compliance with the current EPA standard of 75 parts per billion of ground-level ozone, and the EPA might lower the standard to 70 this summer.

Inland Services, one of three companies now hauling Augusta-Richmond County trash, ran mandatory CNG-powered routes in California for several years, according to David Vance, Inland's director of fleet maintenance in Augusta.

"You're looking at about $8,000 to convert a truck," Vance said.

If Augusta supplies its waste haulers with CNG, however, the plan could lower costs to consumers because up to 35 percent of a waste-hauler's costs are fuel, he said.

Augusta Disposal hasn't ruled out switching to CNG, but administrator Monique Woods said she was unfamiliar with what the city was proposing.

"We don't have an opinion one way or the other; it's really too soon," Woods said.

A requirement that all trucks be "100 percent" CNG-powered might pose challenges, Woods said.

"Some of the subcontractors, I don't know if they have the monetary ability to convert."

Inland, Augusta Disposal and Advanced Disposal are encouraged to subcontract with one or more small, mostly minority-owned local trash pickup companies, Vance said.

One of them, Coleman Sanitation, isn't sure what effect a conversion to CNG would have.

Coleman, Augusta Disposal's only subcontractor, runs a half-dozen trash trucks and employs up to 20 people, depending on the workload, according to owner Melvin Coleman.

Consolidation nearly drove the county's small waste haulers out of business a decade ago, but the subcontractor system in place now has been working, Coleman said.

Coleman said he hadn't heard anything about the city's proposal or what it might require of his operation.

"It's definitely going to make a difference, but until somebody comes up and explains how expensive this is going to be, it's going to be hard to determine that," he said.

Commissioner Jerry Brigham retains hope for the plan and called attention to a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate on Thursday by John Kerry and Joe Lieberman. It would double existing federal tax credits for the purchase of natural-gas-powered fleet vehicles for 10 years. Its goal is to reduce carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2020.

Former Augusta Commissioner Andy Cheek, credited with proposing the conversion plan at the landfill, scoffed at skeptics.

"Us ignoring this resource is the equivalent of Saudi Arabia not pumping oil," said Cheek, who now lives in Aiken County.

Cheek's brother Robert, however, wasn't so sure.

"I don't think the county should force anybody to use a certain type of fuel," said Robert Cheek, who is seeking the District 8 commission seat now held by Jimmy Smith.

Powell's amendment failed in the House, and a day later he filed to run for commissioner of agriculture rather than seek re-election in his District 23 Senate seat. But he had already helped sideline the city's plan.

After he wrote a letter to the commission demanding that it not require waste haulers to use CNG, it voted 7-2 to send the proposal back to a committee, which later voted to delete it from its agenda.

Commissioner Joe Bowles was one of the two who voted to keep it.

"We have 200,000 citizens that are being provided a service," he said. "Instead of looking out for their interests, we're looking out for small haulers."

What's the issue?

With about 1,200 tons of trash going to the landfill daily, Augusta has much more naturally occurring landfill methane than it can sell to its only authorized customer, a nearby kaolin mine, Solid Waste Director Mark Johnson has said.

The landfill can either burn it off in a flare, as it does now, or convert it to compressed natural gas for trash trucks, city fleets and customers, Johnson said.

State Sen. J.B. Powell said requiring haulers to convert their trucks to CNG, as City Administrator Fred Russell and Johnson proposed, would be too expensive for small haulers. His amendment to prohibit it failed in the House, but an Augusta Commission committee has since voted to take the proposal off the commission agenda.

Developing a conversion facility would cost the city $11 million, but it could pay for itself in less than a decade as additional consumers lined up for the fuel, proponents say.

Comments (18) Add comment
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Riverman1
84110
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Riverman1 05/17/10 - 07:16 am
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Much as I hate to say it, JB

Much as I hate to say it, JB is right. How can you make small haulers convert their trucks at a cost of $8,000 per vehicle? Plus, look at the costs to the county to get the thing going. This is an idea as farfetched as anything I've seen.

Grasshopper
7
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Grasshopper 05/17/10 - 07:43 am
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Something needs to be done,

Something needs to be done, Augusta is becoming a dirty city.

Unbelievable
84
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Unbelievable 05/17/10 - 08:25 am
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If it is such good idea why

If it is such good idea why not convert all the school buses and county vehicles first? Then instead of having all the haulers convert at once, the school system and utilities departments can pay the sanitation department for fuel. This would keep the money in the administrations pocket, relieving both budgets. Convert the waste haulers as they can, give them a discount while they are converting their fleet (to make it worth while) and then move it to all haulers have to run it.

Little Lamb
46030
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Little Lamb 05/17/10 - 08:43 am
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I hate to burst Mark

I hate to burst Mark Johnson's and Jimmy Jackson's bubbles; but converting a few trash trucks to CNG fuel will not stop Augusta from obtaining non-attainment status with the Clean Air Act. The rules are designed to squeeze cities into non-attainment status by lowering the pollution limits such that attainment cannot be achieved. Compressed natural gas might put out slightly less carbon per mile than does diesel fuel, but carbon is not part of the Clean Air Act attainment issue.

Little Lamb
46030
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Little Lamb 05/17/10 - 08:41 am
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The sidebar up above

The sidebar up above said:

With about 1,200 tons of trash going to the landfill daily, Augusta has much more naturally occurring landfill methane than it can sell to its only authorized customer, a nearby kaolin mine.

Well, why has Mark Johnson not found more customers? Why is he relying on coercion, i.e., "If you're going to collect trash under the Augusta contract, you must convert to CNG and you must purchase your fuel at our landfill at whatever price we decide to charge."

It would seem to me that Atlanta Gas Light would be happy to purchase the gas if its price is comparable to other wholesale natural gas.

egan01
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egan01 05/17/10 - 08:43 am
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CNG trucks get poor fuel

CNG trucks get poor fuel mileage. The F250 Ford that I drove at Fort Gordon got less than 5 MPG and it took a long time to fill the fuel tank. Unless you get the fuel vary cheap it will cost you a lot more to run your truck.

Ushouldnthave
0
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Ushouldnthave 05/17/10 - 09:08 am
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Four more years of cronyism!

Four more years of cronyism! Nepotism! Rascalism! Of service to the interests!

jb1234
0
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jb1234 05/17/10 - 10:43 am
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Why can't they just remove

Why can't they just remove that one line from the plan that requires ALL trash trucks dumping in the landfill to use the methane fuel? Can't they just use the stuff for city vehicles only and give private firms the OPTION to convert?

joebowles
104
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joebowles 05/17/10 - 11:03 am
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JB1234.... That's is how we

JB1234.... That's is how we will proceed (I Hope). We can convert our large trucks and buses and receive carbon credits and in turn give these credits to local industries to offset the fees for our air quailty.

Little Lamb
46030
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Little Lamb 05/17/10 - 12:09 pm
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In the first place, JB, the

In the first place, JB, the city does not do trash collection. The city has a contract with a large private trash hauler to do trash collection. The large private trash hauler does some sub-contracting with smaller companies (such as Coleman Sanitation in the article above).

You overall point is well-made, though. The city owns and operates numerous vehicles. They could be converted and could burn the methane if that's such a great fuel. The biggest plum on the tree would be the Richmond County Board of Education's fleet of school busses. The school bus depot is not too far from the landfill. Convert them to methane. Have the drivers stop at the landfill after dropping off their precious cargo in the afternoon, fill up with methane, then go to the depot. Afternoon fill-ups would not create a traffic problem at the landfill, since trash dumping drops off quite a bit as the afternoon wears on.

Little Lamb
46030
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Little Lamb 05/17/10 - 12:23 pm
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Egan, up above, makes an

Egan, up above, makes an interesting point. Everybody talks about how much "cheaper" methane is than diesel fuel. The trouble is that we are comparing miles per gallon of diesel to miles per cubic foot of methane. I would like someone to convert the two to the same units of measurement so we could compare. The best way to compare would be to use miles per dollar. If the miles per dollar savings are so good, people would be banging down the door to convert.
= = = = = = = =
Ooops. I found an error in my post and corrected it.

joebowles
104
Points
joebowles 05/17/10 - 11:27 am
0
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LL, We have an permission

LL, We have an permission from AGL, and we can pump the CNG into the gas line and withdraw at the Bus terminal!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I will get the the Miles per dollar.

Little Lamb
46030
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Little Lamb 05/17/10 - 12:10 pm
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Thanks for responding,

Thanks for responding, Commissioner Bowles. That sounds great about using Atlanta Gas Light lines to ship the methane to the school bus depot or even to the city bus terminal.

Little Lamb
46030
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Little Lamb 05/17/10 - 12:16 pm
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It's slightly off-topic, but

It's slightly off-topic, but the notion to have trash pickup only once per week sounds like a great idea to me. It will lower emissions from the engines significantly. I know it will not drop the collection costs by half, but we should expect some reduction in the contracts if they reduce twice-a-week pickup to once a week pickup.

Riverman1
84110
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Riverman1 05/17/10 - 12:19 pm
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I posted all the data about

I posted all the data about cost per mile, etc. when we last had this subject come up a few weeks back. I wish the AC would bring up my old posts, but it only allows the last 5 it appears.

Riverman1
84110
Points
Riverman1 05/17/10 - 01:19 pm
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Little Lamb
46030
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Little Lamb 05/17/10 - 03:31 pm
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Thanks, RM. The chart shows

Thanks, RM. The chart shows comparable costs, but the prices are dated. SCE&G ought to update it.

in total awe
0
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in total awe 06/16/10 - 12:54 pm
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It is a commendable that JB

It is a commendable that JB and Joe Bowles are backing the CNG conversion process. It does seem unfair to the trash haulers to have to lay out $8,000 to convert their trucks with no guarantee of future contracts with the county. Couldn't there be an offer of reduced fuel costs to help offset the conversion costs since the county would set the fuel fee? This would offer a win-win situation. The county reduces its carbon footprint, the haulers receive an offset for the conversion cost, and the county still receives funds to help offset the cost of processing the methane which will be primarily be used by the county vehicles.

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