AC Transit Sees Future for Cleaner-Burning Hydrogen-Fueled Buses

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RICHMOND-Alameda County Transit officials christened the Bay Area's first hydrogen-fueling station yesterday, saying that the depot will aid car manufacturers in field-testing vehicle prototypes.

Though AC Transit expects to operate three hydrogen-fueled buses by 2004, the Richmond station will not be used to fuel the new vehicles, said California Fuel Cell Partnership spokesperson Joe Irvin.

AC Transit will likely construct an additional hydrogen-fueling station at its Oakland service yard to serve its own future fleet of buses, he added.

The new station in Richmond will allow fuel cell car prototypes from automobile manufacturers such as Ford and Hyundai to be tested on open-road conditions as they are driven between the Bay Area and Sacramento.

Hydrogen fuel dispensed at the station burns cleanly and is produced by applying an electrical current to water.

The use of hydrogen fuel-which can be highly explosive-has raised safety concerns among both AC Transit employees and potential patrons.

"Every fuel has its own safety considerations, but hydrogen has been around a long time," Irvin said. "You can count on automakers not coming to market until they have a safe product."

Car manufacturers have performed significant studies examining the volatility of hydrogen fuel tanks in crashes, he added.

AC Transit management has addressed worker concerns as well.

"I've discussed safety with the other workers-anything that's new to the company is an extra challenge for us," said AC Transit mechanic Dave Herro. "They assure us that (the hydrogen fuel-powered vehicle) is one of the safest buses we could be working on."

Diesel engines, such as those currently used by AC Transit buses, have been criticized in the past for excessive pollution and particulate emissions.

AC Transit's move toward cleaner-burning fuels began in 1998 when it was the beneficiary of a settlement between the Port of Oakland and community groups, which allowed the company to adopt buses that run on natural gas.

The use of cleaner-burning hydrogen fuel may address the pollution problems that continue to plague the East Bay areas served by AC Transit.

"Diesel pollution is one of the biggest unaddressed environmental justice issues in the East Bay," said Meena Palaniappan, a senior research associate with the Pacific Institute. "Diesel exhaust contains 41 contaminants, such as benzene and arsenic."

A recent study concluded that low-income people-predominantly minorities-living along the Interstate 880 corridor are being disproportionately sickened by diesel emissions when compared to peers living in more affluent areas, she added.

"There is a relationship between diesel and asthma, and there are several studies that have established this association," said Judith Lewis, a project coordinator with Community Action to Fight Asthma.


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