E85's Future Stalled over Pump Safety Concerns

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E85's Future Stalled over Pump Safety Concerns

The nation's largest product safety laboratory, Underwriters Laboratory (UL), has decided to remove its approval of ethanol pumps, leaving the alterna-fuel frozen in pumps across the country and forming legality debates at nearly 1,000 stations, the Journal Star reported.

John Drengenberg, UL's manager of consumer affairs, told the Journal Star that it had certified some parts of a fueling system as acceptable for alternative fuels but had not taken a close look at E85 until May, when a supplier applied for a UL listing for an entire dispenser. As the company began to examine the system, it found that it needed more information about ethanol's reactions with various metal parts over long periods of time.

"Research indicates that the presence of high concentrations of ethanol or other alcohols within blended fuels makes these fuels significantly more corrosive. This may result in the fuel chemically attacking the materials used in fuel dispenser components, and may ultimately degrade the dispenser's ability to contain the fuel," UL said in a statement.

UL has received no reports of problems with the E85 systems, but removed its certification based on concerns about ethanol's corrosive tendencies, it said in a statement. It added that local authorities could determine whether the existing pumps met their standards. UL did not return calls to the Detroit Free Press for comment, though the company will hold an informal meeting in November. Although the company is moving quickly to resolve the issue, according to Drengenberg, UL will not set a deadline for creating a new standard.

The approval change only affects pumps that sell fuel blends with more than 15 percent ethanol, the Detroit Free Press reported. For stores that offer this mix, including the E85 blend of 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline, pumps can run and stores are "allowed to sell it until they're told not to," Michelle Kautz, a spokeswoman for the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition told the newspaper.

With the approval gone, many officials believe that the E85 pumps do not comply with state and local fire codes that require "listed" equipment for pumping fuel, the report stated. In Columbus, Ohio, two E85 pumps were shut down last week by its fire marshal because it did not sport a UL approval.

"We were a little taken aback by UL's action. It came as a surprise to everyone," Sam Spofforth, executive director of Clean Fuels Ohio told the Free Press. "We're optimistic that is a short-term, temporary problem."

Ethanol industry advocates became angered by the decision, citing that no safety concerns with the pumps have been raised prior to this announcement. Many current ethanol pumps were installed with a provisional UL listing at the time.

Ethanol has been received as the next generation in clean fuels. Politicians, including U.S. president George Bush, tout its abilities to reduce our nation's dependence on foreign oil, and automakers laud their new automotive creations, such as the flex-fuel vehicle, that are environmentally "green." Beyond that, automakers, including GM and Ford have committed to expand the number of stations that their new vehicles can fill their tanks at, and have promised, along with DaimlerChrysler, to double the number of E85 vehicles sold each year, totaling two million flex-fuel vehicles by 2010.

In Indiana, the change has far-reaching affects. Governor Mitch Daniels has committed to large-scale ethanol production plants and fueling stations. Last week, groundbreaking began at a new ethanol production site in the Winchester-Muncie area, and plans for a new E85 fuel station in Cambridge City were announced, along with reports that a second was to be announced shortly.

State officials in Michigan are still debating whether the 26 E85 stations' pumps meet the state's standards, according to Mark Griffin, president of the Michigan Petroleum Association. While existing pumps at stations cost them $15,000 to $75,000 to add, Griffin estimates, he noted that new pumps wouldn't be available until UL clarifies the issue, which "could be a matter of weeks. It could be months or years," he told the Free Press.

"Somebody asked whether this thing is heading toward a train wreck," Griffin said. "Well, I don't know."