Machine gives new life to old oil

Recycling program helps Alaska villages deal with high fuel costs

Posted: Friday, October 17, 2008

A program that has removed mountains of junk from hard-to-reach Alaska villages will expand next summer when it helps villages along the Yukon River turn used engine oil into valuable heating fuel.

With heating fuel costing more than $6 a gallon in much of rural Alaska, the recycling effort will be a bonus for villages that have stockpiled hundreds of gallons of old oil over the years.

The nonprofit Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council launched the effort in Nenana last year, said Jon Waterhouse, council director. It used $70,000 in mostly federal grants to buy a little-known machine called a WOTEC - short for Waste Oil To Energy Convertor.

By blending used oil with a big batch of heating fuel and cleaning the mixture, the big, boxy machine allowed the village of 550 near Fairbanks to create more heating fuel to warm the clinic, said Edna Hancock, tribal administrator.

The machine saved the village around $2,000, but could have saved twice that if the tribal government had more manpower, she said. There's a lot more old oil to process and generators in town keep making more.

The savings may not sound like much, but they can help small villages that rely on grants to leverage more state and federal support, she said.

"It shows we're being prudent and trying to clean up the environment around us and utilizing our funding in a better way," Hancock said.

The oil recycling falls under the council's backhaul program to clean the Yukon River watershed by helping villages remove rusting four-wheeler frames, beat-up trucks, old freezers and any other rubbish that can't be burned away.

The junk has sat in villages for decades because transportation costs are so high. The council worried that battery acid, old oil, Freon and other waste would leak onto the tundra and pollute the salmon-rich river, Waterhouse said.

To remove the junk, the council in 2004 lined up shipping firms to haul it out for free. With the council's help, the trash ends up at recycling companies in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Seattle.

Getting oil out of the villages was another matter. Freight companies charge high prices to move it because it's hazardous, Waterhouse said.

That's why the council installed the WOTEC machine in Nenana.

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