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O.C.'s Bus-Fuel Tanks Cause Hassles

The underground natural-gas system is a headache for the transit authority. A $1-million AQMD grant will help build an aboveground backup.

October 31, 2002|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Two novel fuel stations that supply liquefied natural gas to the county's ailing fleet of clean-air transit buses have been inadequate and undependable, regional air quality regulators say.

The Orange County Transportation Authority operates two fuel depots for 232 natural gas buses at facilities in Anaheim and Garden Grove. The stations, which cost $4.5 million each, include two underground 25,000-gallon tanks, although virtually all such natural gas storage facilities elsewhere are aboveground.

The underground design -- and unusual size -- of the tanks means using custom pumping equipment, which has proved troublesome and costs more to maintain and repair.

Earlier this month, the board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District granted the transportation agency $1 million to help build a new 30,000-gallon fueling system as a backup and to provide for bus fleet growth.

The overall project will cost between $1.4 million and $1.8 million.

OCTA and air quality officials say the existing tanks have several problems, including undependable pumps and heaters used to warm super-cooled liquefied natural gas as it enters bus fuel tanks. The buses themselves have had mechanical problems, costing the agency about $1 million in repair bills and forcing the return of polluting diesel buses to the streets.

Air quality officials have been working with the OCTA to resolve many of the fuel-station problems. Their efforts have led to a reengineering of the systems and plans to add the conventional, aboveground fueling station.

"They took a very novel approach and ran into difficulties that no one envisioned," said Henry Hogo, an AQMD officer who specializes in science and technology. "We have managed to solve a lot of the problems."

AQMD has supported clean-fuel vehicles to reduce air pollution. Funding for district grants comes from fines and settlements collected by the agency.

James Ortner, the OCTA's manager of technical services, insists that the tank problems have not affected bus operations, other than by requiring more time to fuel coaches.

"We are managing these problems," Ortner said. "We have never missed putting a bus on the street on time."

There is only one other underground fueling station in the United States -- in Pennsylvania -- and it serves only seven vehicles, not a fleet of buses.

Hogo said the stations worked well when the transportation authority had only 20 buses that relied on liquefied natural gas. As the fleet of clean-air buses grew to more than 200, problems arose, and fueling vehicles took far longer.

Once the fueling systems were enlarged to accommodate the larger fleet, the pumps vibrated, and valves were shaking off. Heaters used to warm the fuel also were unreliable.

A new fueling station would help the OCTA service its buses and provide a reliable backup whenever there were problems with the underground facilities, AQMD officials said.

In February 2000, when OCTA was considering putting the tanks underground, the authority's leadership was told they would cost $3.5 million more than aboveground facilities and be more difficult to maintain and repair.

"Your agency is about to waste another $3.5 million on a facility it doesn't need," said James N. Harger, a vice president of Pickens Fuel Corp. "From a taxpayer standpoint and [as] an industry expert, I am appalled at the lack of professionalism displayed by your staff to the community and our company."

Pickens, which is owned by Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, had proposed building a cheaper aboveground facility for OCTA with a 50,000-gallon capacity but was rebuffed.

Ortner said the agency wanted underground tanks for security reasons, as well as to save space at the Garden Grove and Anaheim stations. He said the cost difference between above- and below-ground facilities was only $100,000, a figure Harger disputes.

"T. Boone Pickens wanted business from us," Ortner said. "We had other sources. Our board told Jim Harger, 'Thank you very much, we like the direction we are going.' "We would reassess building them underground today," Ortner said.

Coaches powered by liquefied natural gas make up 44% of OCTA's fleet of 523 transit buses. The authority bought the vehicles from a Hungarian manufacturer in 1998, when federal rules went into effect banning the purchase of diesel buses and requiring all buses to run on clean fuel by 2010.

Officials said the buses have constantly needed repair ever since. Most problems involve the fuel system. It is not uncommon for more than 30 of the buses a day to be out of service awaiting repairs.

The authority has been withholding a final $1.7 million payment to the manufacturer, North American Bus Industries, until the problems are solved. The owner of the company has accused OCTA of illegally withholding the payment.

On Monday, Arthur Leahy, OCTA's chief executive officer, reported to the board of directors that tensions between the bus company and the authority have eased.

"The chairman of the company has been talking to us about the problems," Leahy said.

"We don't have any cures yet, just a more cooperative vendor."

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