Minneapolis gets serious about cutting pollution

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February 16, 2004 // UPDATED 2:56 pm - April 24, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

City's 'Green Committees' producing results

Bill Gauthier is a maintenance guy, responsible for repairing and fueling the city's 1,500 police cars, fire trucks, snowplows and sedans.

Gauthier also chairs the city's Green Fleet Committee and talks passionately about finding ways to fix and run equipment in more environmentally friendly ways without spending a lot more money. It is one of a half-dozen city "green" committees launched in 2003, pursuing initiatives such as porous pavement that keeps runoff out of storm sewers, energy-efficient parking signals and more convenient hazardous waste collection.

Gauthier counts among his committee's accomplishments a shift in fuel purchases. The city buys roughly 960,000 gallons of unleaded gas every year. At no extra cost, it now buys low-sulfur fuel (equivalent to Holiday's Blue Planet gasoline) reducing sulfur dioxide emissions to one-third the levels of other gasoline, he said.

City vehicles also burn 760,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year, and Public Works started buying "biodiesel," a cleaner-burning fuel that includes renewable energy sources such as vegetable oils, he said. The city is increasing from B2 (2 percent biodiesel) to B5 (5 percent biodiesel) this year. For 5 cents more per gallon ($38,000 annually) the city reduces pollutants such as carbon dioxide and particle emissions by 1 percent.

Gauthier said hopes to "nudge" the mixture a bit each year and eventually buy B20 biodiesel.

"We are getting the low-hanging fruit," he said. "It's common-sense stuff."

Gauthier gave a tour of the Public Works facility at 1200 Currie Ave. N. and pointed out a variety of "Green" efforts, including some that predate the Green Committee's work.

The three-year-old shop has a car wash that cleans 1,300 vehicles a month in the winter, he said. The city uses nonphosphorous, eco-friendly soap. "It might not clean as well, but it is better environmentally," Gauthier said.

The car wash even recycles the water -- until it gets too dirty, he said. (They know to change the water when it starts leaving spots on the cars.)

The city has a water-based parts washer (essentially a big dishwasher) to clean gears and bolts, as opposed to the traditional equipment that uses oil-based solvents, he said.

The shop buys re-refined motor oil (reprocessed dirty oil) at no extra cost, Gauthier said. It also buys a clay-based floor dry -- the material mechanics throw on the floor to soak up grease and oil spills, Gauthier said. Instead of going into a landfill, it gets shipped to a company that burns off the oils and makes new floor dry.

The city is experimenting with 19 alternative-fuel cars, including 13 E85 Tauruses in the police fleet, he said. E85 cars can burn 85 percent ethanol fuel (as compared to 10 percent ethanol fuel used in other city cars). The E85 gas costs less, but it gets fewer miles to the gallon, so the cars break even financially on fuel costs.

Gauthier said he hopes to increase the E85 fleet -- but it will depend on whether the police and other employees who use the cars like the performance. One downside to E85 cars is that the city has only one contract to buy it, he said. E85 drivers have to refuel at a Holiday station in Northeast. Further, because of the lower fuel efficiency, they have to fill up more often.

If the E85 fleet gets large enough, Gauthier could dedicate one of Public Works' 15,000-gallon tanks to E85 fuel, he said.

Animal shelter innovations

The city has undertaken environmental initiatives for years, but it is increasingly coordinating its efforts -- and trumpeting its successes more. The city published a two-page report on its Sustainability Initiatives, highlighting everything from new bike lanes to the conversion of the Riverside coal-burning plant to natural gas.

In 2003, it started six "Green" committees: Green Fleets, Green Buildings, Green Energy, Green Neighborhoods, Green Purchasing and Green Transportation.

Gary Warnberg, chair of the Green Purchasing Committee, helped the Green Fleets Committee meet some of its goals. The city has cooperative B5 biodiesel fuel-buying deal with Hennepin County, he said.

The $3.3 million Animal Care and Control Facility being built at 1705 N. 2nd St. is one example of a Green Building initiative.

Project Manager Paul Miller said it would have a brick pavement parking lot. "Its design and layout allows stormwater to filter through the pavement and into the soil below as opposed to running off and adding extra runoff to the storm drain system," he said.

Having stormwater run through the soil instead of going directly to a storm sewer also filters out pollutants, he said. The brick pavement added $20,000 to the cost, or 25 percent more than a traditional parking lot.

The building's heating, ventilation and air conditioning system will also use a Desiccant Wheel, Miller said. The animal shelter is a high-moisture building because of daily cleaning. The Desiccant Wheel -- using material that absorbs moisture naturally -- helps dehumidify the building more quickly and reduces energy use.

"The end result: we exceeded the state's energy code by 30 percent," he said.

Green transportation, neighborhoods

The Green Transportation Committee's most concrete project is the city's ongoing effort to use more energy-efficient traffic signals, said Jon Wertjes assistant director of traffic and parking services and the committee chair.

Starting in 2001, the city began replacing the traditional incandescent "Walk/Don't Walk" signs with energy efficient light-emitting diode (LED) units. The LEDs cost $400 more per intersection, but save approximately $300 a year in electricity, according to 2001 Public Works data.

The city also will work in the next 18 months to develop a 2030 transportation vision with a 10-year action plan, Wertjes said. The city currently does not have a comprehensive transportation plan, just general statements.

"The Minneapolis Plan says 'Transit First,' but gives no direction or specifics about what that means," Wertjes said.

He compared it to setting a goal of jumping 6 feet high when someone doesn't have "6-feet-high-jumping legs." The plan needed more specifics, he said.

Lorrie Stromme, Council President Paul Ostrow's aid, chairs the Green Neighborhoods Committee, which has worked on urban forest and community garden issues.

The group also is working to help promote Hennepin County's neighborhood-based hazardous waste pickup program. The county began a pilot program lat year with 10 Minneapolis neighborhoods. Neighborhoods identify community collection points so people don't have to drive as far to drop off hazardous products, she said.

Applications are due Feb. 20. For more information, contact Amy Roering at Hennepin County at 348-8992 or e-mail her at amy.roaring@co.hennepin.mn.us

Warnberg said the city also has begun buying arsenic-free lumber.

Arsenic helps prevent rot and insect damage but also creates health risks, according to some studies. Warnberg characterized the costs of nonarsenic lumber as "slightly higher," but added that once it is at the end of its useful life, it can go in a regular landfill.