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Fire puts biodiesel under scrutiny

State officials look at classifying fuel as hazardous material

A fire that destroyed a startup biodiesel company is prompting state environmental and fire officials to study whether the increasingly popular alternative fuel should be classified as a hazardous material or waste.

'We currently have no rules or regulations that cover biodiesel,' said Nina DeConcini, the communications manager for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

According to DeConcini, the June 24 fire caused officials from several state agencies to begin discussing whether biodiesel should be considered a hazardous material or waste - and if so, how it should be regulated.

DeConcini said the agencies include the DEQ, the Oregon State Fire Marshal's Office, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy.

'We are surveying what other states are doing and will be determining our approach in the near future,' she said.

Biodiesel is made from vegetable oil and can be used in diesel engines, either mixed with conventional diesel fuel or in pure form. It produces far less air pollution than conventional diesel fuel or gasoline.

When firefighters responded to a barn fire outside of Canby late last month, they did not know that nearly 1,000 gallons of biodiesel were stored in and around the building. But they knew something was different about the fire when they saw heavy black smoke pouring out of the building.

As it turned out, the barn was being used to produce and store biodiesel by Jeff Brandt, an alternative-energy advocate who was starting a company called Sunbreak Biofuels.

'When we arrived it looked like a fuel refinery fire,' said Canby Fire District Capt. Val Codino.

According to Codino, the burning biodiesel was hard to extinguish.

'We kept sweeping the fire down, and it kept flaring right back,' Codino said. 'The fire was burning with tremendous intensity, more so than would normally be encountered in a typical structure fire.'

Before the fire was extinguished, the barn was a total loss - and so was Brandt's processing and storage equipment, valued at more than $10,000. But it could have been worse. The firefighters prevented the blaze from spreading to a pickup truck that was parked between the burning barn and a second barn on the property. The truck held barrels containing hundreds of gallons of biodiesel .

'If the fire had reached the truck, it could have been fully engulfed and spread it to the second barn,' said Troy Buzalsky, a Canby Fire division chief.

As Brandt sees it, the problem facing firefighters would have been much greater if the barn had held conventional diesel fuel.

'Biodiesel is biodegradable, so what was left of it just broke down and went away over the next few days,' said Brandt, who vows to replace his equipment, find a new location, begin producing biodiesel again and incorporate his business.

DeConcini said biodiesel is less hazardous than conventional diesel and other petroleum-based fuels, but she is not ready to give it a free pass yet.

'With more and more people getting interested in producing biodiesel, we need to learn more about it,' DeConcini said.

A complicated recipe

No one knows how many people are producing, storing or shipping biodiesel in the Portland area or the rest of the state.

'We have no handle on the numbers,' DeConcini said.

The fire marshal's office classifies biodiesel as a flammable liquid. Businesses with more than 50 gallons of biodiesel on their premises must file a Hazardous Substance Information Survey with the office that says how many gallons they have and where it is. Thirteen such forms are on file with the office, nine with Portland addresses.

Private citizens do not have to file such a form, however. That was the case with Brandt and the Canby barn.

The number of people making biodiesel in and around Portland may be quite small, however. According to Brandt, producing biodiesel is much harder than it sounds.

Although numerous news articles have said biodiesel can be made by simply straining used cooking oil from restaurants, Brandt had to experiment with the process for weeks before coming up with the right formula. Eventually, he found that a multistep process involving methanol, lye and low heat resulted in an alternative that would power his diesel car.

'If you don't do it exactly right, you get soap or a useless bunch of goo I call biogunk,' Brandt said.

The multistep process Brandt uses is not without potential problems, however. Methanol is so flammable it is used as racing fuel in dragsters.

But it was not the methanol - or any of the steps or ingredients in the production process - that started the blaze. Buzalsky said the fire started in the electrical wiring in the portion of the barn that Brandt was using for an office. Brandt said the office was not up to building codes - the wiring was old and the office was separated from the rest of the barn by wooden paneling, not fire-resistant Sheetrock.

'The paneling helped the fire spread instead of stopping it. Next time I'll use a building that meets all the codes,' he said. According to DeConcini, none of the ingredients in Brandt's biodiesel is currently classified as a hazardous material. But she is not sure what happens when they are combined and heated.

'Vegetable oil, methanol and lye are not hazardous materials - and if you put them all together, the biodiesel you make is not classified as a hazardous material, either. We just need to be sure that's correct,' DeConcini said.

Storage can be a problem

Robert Happel, the hazardous material manager for Portland Fire and Rescue, said it is not unusual for fires that start in one portion of a structure to spread to a portion containing flammable materials - even in private residences.

'People have all kinds of things in their homes. Gasoline, kerosene, materials used in hobbies - firefighters never know what they are going to find,' he said.

Happel said this is not the first time that people are making or storing their own motor vehicle fuel, either.

'I remember during the gas crisis in the 1970s, a lot of people were storing gasoline at home and looking at alternative fuels. You also hope that they contact the authorities before doing something like that so they can learn the best way to do it, but that doesn't always happen,' he said.

Although biodiesel is combustible, it does not burn as easily as conventional diesel. The flashpoint for biodiesel is nearly 300 degrees, compared to 125 degrees for conventional diesel and 100 degrees for gasoline.

'Biodiesel has clear environmental benefits, and we don't want to discourage anyone from pursuing it. At the same time, we want to make sure that it is made and handled safely,' DeConcini said.

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