More sparks have been flying from city garbage trucks lately than a City-County Council meeting over police and sheriff's department consolidation.
Mechanics have been cutting out sections of garbage truck exhaust pipes and splicing in tubes filled with precious metals. When the "diesel oxidation catalyst" heats up, combustion gases blowing through it are cleansed before coming out the tailpipe.
So simple and quick is this approach to curbing air pollution that John Chavez hopes the humble trash truck project will spark other public and commercial fleets to make similar modifications.
"If we can do it, certainly they can, too," said the administrator of the City Department of Environmental Services.
Chavez will be among those speaking to about 200 fleet operators expected to attend the Heavy/Medium Duty Fleet Conference Aug. 9 at the downtown Hyatt Regency.
The focus is on alternative fuels and other emission-reduction measures that can be applied to fleets to help bring the region into compliance with federal air pollution laws and reduce health risks.
Green ideas traditionally have faced frowns from bottom-line businesses when it comes to spending sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars to modify their vehicles.
The mood may be changing, however, with federal regulators about to pounce on the region for non-attainment of groundlevel ozone standards. Businesses and individuals may be forced to spend money on vehicle modifications starting within the next three years if the state imposes mandatory emissions testing here.
That's one of several options being considered by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management as part of a plan to comply with tougher federal standards for ground-level ozone by 2009. The state has until 2007 to develop a plan.
Among the most insidious polluters are diesel-powered trucks. They can pump out hydrocarbons that, when combined with sunlight, contribute to ground-level ozone.
Diesel exhaust also is laced with carbon monoxide, fine particles that go deep in the lungs, and 40 substances known to be toxic, said Dr. Stephen Jay, a professor of medicine and public health and chairman of the Department of Public Health at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
"It's a significant public health problem in this county. Diesel exhaust pollution is kind of a chemical soup," said the pulmonologist scheduled to speak at the conference.
"We need to have government, at appropriate levels, and business coming together," Jay said.
The conference is a Woodstock of regulators and business. The tentative slate includes updates by state and federal authorities on new standards, as well as information on new technologies and alternative fuels being used by organizations ranging from Columbus-based Cummins Inc. to General Motors/Allison.
"It's basically for education and outreach. There's a lot of fleets in central Indiana,'' said Kellie Walsh, executive director of the Central Indiana Clean Cities Alliance. CICCA estimates that more than 1,578 alternative fuel vehicles are in use in central Indiana, up from 856 in 2002.
CICCA, which is one of the sponsors of the conference, officially is "fuel neutral," Walsh said. "There's a fuel for every fleet is how I look at it."
For Citizens Gas & Coke Utility, the answer-not surprisingly-was natural gas, which fuels the utility's fleet of more than 125 service vans. Lately, the fuel has been a bargain: around $1.35 for the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline that costs $2.16. The utility said its oil change intervals are at least triple the length of a gasoline-powered engine because natural gas burns cleaner.
Other fleets in the area use propane, including the yellow home delivery trucks of Marshall, Minn.-based Schwan Food Co. Many Indianapolis International Airport vehicles use soy diesel, which burns cleaner and reduces petroleum demand.
The city of Indianapolis, meanwhile, is one of the largest operators of so-called flex-fuel vehicles that burn E85, a blend of ethanol and gasoline. It recently mandated the use of E85 in its 165 flex-fuel vehicles. The city received a state grant to install two E85 fueling stations.
Fuels that are better for the environment aren't necessarily less costly, however. Lately, E85 has cost less at the pump than gasoline, but that's thanks partly to federal tax credits for ethanol distilleries.
Also, flex-fuel vehicles tend to get worse gas mileage than when burning gasoline. One test of a flex-fuel Dodge Caravan found it got 16.4 miles per gallon on E-85 vs. 22.5 mpg on gasoline.
Vehicle conversion costs also can be expensive. Converting a truck to natural gas or propane can cost upwards of $9,000-perhaps $30,000 for a bus.
Alternative fuel proponents say tax credits and government grants can help offset costs.
The Lieutenant Governor's Office plans to shell out at least $180,000 in grants in the 2006 fiscal year that began July 1 to help businesses and public agencies use alternative-fuel vehicles. Numerous federal energy grants are available. Groups such as CICCA help fleet owners write grant requests.
The city's Chavez said officials are looking at ways to leverage EPA grants to help fleets install diesel oxidation catalysts. The city, which has applied for another federal grant and now is retrofitting off-road vehicles and front-end loaders with the catalysts, also has been talking with the Indianapolis Fire Department, Indianapolis Public Schools and IndyGo about ways to modify their fleets. IndyGo already uses a handful of hybrid diesel-electric buses developed by Allison in Indianapolis.
Except for the most environmentally gung-ho businesses, however, bottom-line considerations will remain paramount when it comes to fleet modifications.
Pulmonologist Jay said businesses can't afford not to operate more environmentally friendly fleets. He cites statistics for Indiana that blame diesel emissions on 369 premature deaths, 483 non-fatal heart attacks and 7,000 asthma attacks-all of which contributed to 42,730 work-loss days in Indiana in 1999 alone.
"The bottom line is, it's bad stuff," Jay said of emissions. "It is a big hit on business."