Lawmaker scales back legislation limiting use of ethanol-based fuel

Posted Feb. 04, 2010, at 8:36 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The owners of boats, snowmobiles, chain saws and older vehicles who have encountered problems with ethanol-blended fuels may have to bite their lips and get used to the environmentally friendlier gasoline.

A bill that would have required retail dealers and distributors to offer nonethanol-blended fuel has been withdrawn and substituted with legislation to create an educational program to advise people how to avoid, prevent and minimize damage to their motors caused by E-10, and to create a system of disposal sites for E-10 gone bad.

The sponsor, Sen. Lisa Marrache, D-Waterville, said she had no choice but to downscale her bill. That didn’t please everybody who attended a Transportation Committee meeting Thursday.

“This does not address the problems of E-10,” said Joe Saunders, a mechanic from Durham. “In other words, the bill was gutted.”

Saunders told lawmakers that people stuck with old, deteriorating E-10, so named for the 10 percent mix of corn-based fuel with gasoline, are dumping the unusable fuel behind their barns. Problems with the fuel came to light in Maine a couple of years ago when distribution widened in the state.

Deterioration of the fuel is a particular problem in Maine, where summer- and winter-use motors can sit for months without being used because of the state’s long season of cold.

Gary Mills of South Thomaston said it cost him $500 in the last two years to replace parts that were corroded or otherwise damaged by the solventlike fuel, and he sees it as a danger because it renders engines less dependable.

“I’ve had some serious problems with this stuff,” said Mills. “It’s definitely dangerous on boats, motorcycles, snowmobiles.”

Dave Sleeper of the State of Maine Harbormasters Association called E-10 use in boat-friendly Maine “a potential life-safety issue” because of its impact on marine engines.

Sleeper and other critics said E-10 tends to damage rubber fuel hoses and some fiberglass tanks. He said it has a short shelf life unless treated with preservatives. If that’s not done, owners are “left with a gas tank full of hazardous waste,” said Marrache. Disposal then becomes an issue.

But Marrache said there’s not much she or the Legislature can do to require retailers to carry non-E-10 fuel. Federal law requires a minimum use of the alternative fuel nationally, and the distribution system in Maine limits consumers to essentially all E-10, Marrache said.

After putting in her original bill last year and consulting with oil companies, Marrache said she discovered that requiring nonethanol fuel was “much easier said than done.”

While that’s off the table, Marrache still wants the state Department of Transportation to make information available to consumers so they can avoid or at least mitigate problems from E-10. A separate bill will call for a program to dispose of old E-10 properly. Marrache also wants to propose a resolution asking Congress to scale back its E-10 mandate.

Many of the educational materials are already out there, said Patty Aho, representing the American Petroleum Institute. The state Department of Environmental Protection, federal Environmental Protection Agency, and the Renewable Fuels Association are among those whose Web sites contain information, she said.

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