By Harry Eagar, Staff Writer
Maui News

KAHULUI – Maui Electric Co. has negotiated a reduction of a $1.56 million fine for air pollution with the Department of Health Clean Air Branch.

The new amount would be $800,000, if accepted by the department after a 30-day public comment period.

Biodiesel fuel, manufactured on Maui, came to the rescue of MECO, President Ed Reinhardt said Friday.

Laurence Lau, the state deputy director for environmental health, said: “We are pleased to have resolved this important issue so quickly.”

When it comes to environmental regulation, the department often looks for settlements that correct the problem, rather than simply punishing the offender, Lau says.

For example, in the 1990s, when the county’s Department of Public Works and Environmental Management was having trouble with sewage spills, the Clean Water Branch fined the county but remitted the penalty when the county agreed to spend the same amount on a testing laboratory.

The county, under pressure from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, also got tough with restaurants dumping kitchen grease into the sewers, passing an ordinance, which, after some delays, took final hold this month, with about 90 percent compliance.

As one offshoot of all this activity, restaurants began looking for other places besides the sewer and the landfill to dump grease, and Bob King took advantage by forming Pacific Biodiesel to collect the waste fat and turn it into diesel oil.

That, in turn, was the biggest component of MECO’s corrective action, says Reinhardt.

Since there is room for differences of opinion – including engineering judgments – there was room for negotiation about a fine amount, says Lau.

“We are actually looking out for” situations that can be resolved that way, he says.

Reinhardt says the problem arose from the four large diesel generators at Maalaea, especially when they were put back in service after major overhauls.

This didn’t happen often – once in 18 months per engine – but when it did, MECO had trouble with smoking.

Starting a power plant creates a puff of smoke anyway, so the Clean Air Branch allows a brief time – just six minutes – for managers to get the emissions under control.

With the big engines, this was difficult, says Reinhardt.

But by switching to 100 percent biodiesel during startup, the problem is now under control.

He says MECO has had opacity problems just twice in 2003, once following a major overhaul.

“We have done some other things, like heating the engine and changing the nozzles,” he says, but biodiesel was the key improvement.

Once the engines are adjusted and running, the utility can switch over to cheaper petroleum diesel and keep within environmental limits.

The problem is less severe in smaller diesel engines, so biodiesel is not needed on Lanai and Molokai, where MECO also uses diesel generators.

“It didn’t happen very often,” says Reinhardt, “but when it did there were a lot of violations.”

It takes at least a few days when a big diesel comes out of a major overhaul for it to be properly broken in.

At the same time last year when the fine was announced against MECO, the Clean Air Branch also announced a $2 million fine against Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.

However, the issue was completely different and involved use of a type of fuel that was not on HC&S’s permit at its Puunene generating plant.

The mixup was inadvertent and was self-reported in 2001 when HC&S discovered the error, but it had gone on so long, the fine had mounted up.

The Clean Air Branch calculated it based on the amount it thought HC&S had saved by using a cheaper fuel.

Lau says there is a difference of opinion about how much that was, and the operator and the department are negotiating over what the fine should be.

An HC&S spokeswoman confirmed that the company was in discussions concerning the amount but said she could not say anything further.