Hydrogen Fuel Raises Safety Hazards 

The number of hydrogen-fueled cars in California will rise in the years to come, but state and federal regulators seem unprepared to deal with the highly flammable fuel.

It was just before 3 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon and traffic was moving smoothly on the Pomona Freeway, about twenty miles outside downtown Los Angeles. Suddenly, a truck carrying compressed hydrogen caught fire, and by the time the local fire department had arrived on the scene, two of the hydrogen tanks had begun venting gas and flames had engulfed the truck's cab. It took almost seven hours for firefighters, working with a mix of chemicals and water, to end the threat.

"It had the full spectrum of colors," Captain Will Pryor of the Los Angeles County Fire Department recalled of the fire on November 14, 2013. "It's like a log in a fire. You'd have blue parts of it. Orange parts of it.

"There is a school nearby, there are multiple residences nearby, apartment buildings, office buildings," Pryor continued. "They were all in a half-mile blast radius, what was reported would be the blast radius of hydrogen."

In the end, there were no casualties, and the worst-case scenario was avoided. But as California expands its use of hydrogen-fueled cars and builds out its infrastructure for servicing those cars, more hydrogen is going to be trucked around.

Later this year, 1,000 of Hyundai's hydrogen-fueled cars will go on sale in California, and Toyota has announced plans for a commercial model to go on sale in 2015. Ford, Daimler, Nissan, General Motors, and Honda have also announced plans for partnerships on hydrogen fuel cell technologies. The California Air Resources Board has projected that there will be more than 50,000 electric and hydrogen cars in California by 2018. Governor Jerry Brown last year agreed to devote $20 million every year over the next decade to build one hundred additional hydrogen-fueling stations. The state currently has 23 active stations.

Hydrogen as a fuel source is an attractive proposition mainly because it doesn't emit toxic, heat-trapping pollutants the way gasoline does. But hydrogen poses several risks that gasoline does not. It can ignite more easily, and it's colorless and odorless, making it difficult to readily detect leaks.

Environmental and regulatory experts have long worried about the threat posed by the vast array of dangerous materials being moved across the country daily, from nuclear waste to pesticides and compressed gases. "As far as the aggregate risk that is presented to the American public, I don't think it's going to change significantly," said Carl Southwell, a risk analyst who studies infrastructure and chemical risks. "But there will be slightly more risk to first responders and people near the hydrogen fire."

A ProPublica review of voluntarily submitted data collected by the US Department of Energy shows that there have been some problems with hydrogen infrastructure nationally. There have been 37 recorded "events" in recent years involving hydrogen trucks or fueling stations. Of the 22 events recorded at fueling stations, hydrogen was released in a dozen of them, and twice the releases resulted in fires. Fires occurred in five of the fifteen recorded events involving hydrogen trucks.

Currently, the transport of hydrogen is monitored by both state and federal agencies. The federal agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), said it requires documentation and labeling for shipments of hydrogen and training for employees involved in its transport. However, there have been recent reports asserting that the agency has been chronically understaffed and underfunded. A senior agency official recently conceded as much, saying that funding from Congress had dried up and that the regulatory process he oversees was "kind of dying."

Gordon Delcambre Jr., a PHMSA spokesman, said the agency ensures compliance of hazardous materials shippers and carriers by conducting unannounced inspections. But he acknowledged that federal regulations do not require such inspections or mandate how often they should occur. The agency's western office, which is responsible for twelve states, has just seven inspectors.

In 2007, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which is in charge of enforcing regulations for cargo trucks and interstate buses, called for changes in its operations to meet the increase in vehicles using hydrogen. But the FMCSA has not made changes to include separate inspection procedures and regulations for hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Chief Jan Dunbar of the California Office of Emergency Services downplayed the challenge any increase in hydrogen transport and use might present to first responders. "There's nothing special about hydrogen that sets it apart from any other flammable gas," he said. 

California's Office of the State Fire Marshal, however, does have a sixteen-hour emergency response-training program for alternative fuel vehicles. The curriculum allocates one hour to the discussion of hydrogen. But fire departments aren't required to provide the course to their firefighters. Since the program was started in 2009, four classroom sessions have been conducted, each with 44 students.

Jennifer Hamilton, an education specialist at the California Fuel Cell Partnership, said she has delivered hundreds of workshops on hydrogen fuel cells to firefighters. Hamilton estimates that her workshops have reached more than 5,000 firefighters so far, but is quick to clarify that they do not qualify as true training. "Training implies that there is some sort of certificate or credits and an approved curriculum," she said. "We don't give anything like that. Our program is at the information or awareness level."

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