A gas leak almost certainly played a role in the explosion that flattened two buildings in Manhattan on Wednesday morning, killing at least seven people and injuring many more. City officials have said as much, and local residents told reporters on Wednesday that they smelled gas in the area well before the blast.
So it’s darkly ironic that the owner of one of the buildings destroyed in the explosion had actually shunned gas for an alternative energy source -- a far less combustible one.
Biodiesel, a unconventional fuel celebrated by proponents as a safer and cleaner alternative to both gas and petroleum, is made of recycled vegetable oil, animal fats, and other substances. Only about 1,000 buildings in New York City have heating systems that run solely on biodiesel, but the building at 1646 Park Avenue was one of them.
Kaoru Muramatsu, the owner of both the building and Absolute Piano, a music shop on the bottom floor, was an advocate of the biodiesel cause. In 2010, she joined a panel of business leaders, environmental activists and politicians, including Melissa Mark-Viverito, then a New York City council member and now the council speaker, at a press conference promoting the fuel.
The conference was held at the piano store, and Muramatsu was one of the speakers, according to an invitation to the event.
Muramatsu couldn’t be reached for comment on Wednesday or Thursday. But Dehran Duckworth, a co-owner of Tri-State Biodiesel, confirmed that his Bronx-based company provided fuel to Muramatsu’s building. He called Muramatsu a “trendsetter,” saying she switched from pure petroleum to a petroleum-biodiesel blend about four years ago, and then more recently began using pure biodiesel, soon after it became available on the market.
Duckworth’s fuel truck was actually on the way to East Harlem on Wednesday to refill the 500-gallon tank in the building's basement when the driver learned about the explosion.
Officials believe it may have been caused by a leak in a pipe that ran beneath the street, feeding gas into other homes on the block. Duckworth insisted that the biodiesel hadn't been a factor. “It has a higher flashpoint than diesel, and a much higher flashpoint than natural gas,” he said.
A 44-year-old self-described “hippie from way back,” Duckworth got into the biodiesel business after meeting his future business partner, Brent Baker, about 20 years ago. Baker was cruising the country in a 35-foot school bus that ran on vegetable oil and solar power.
After starting their company in 2004, Baker and Duckworth watched their customer base grow exponentially. Last year alone, it expanded 10 times over. In addition to supplying energy to about 1000 homes, Tri-State Biodiesel fuels the giant columns of light projected from lower Manhattan on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Big Apple Circus and many film and TV sets. Duckworth said the company delivered “tankers and tankers” of biodiesel to Red Cross sites in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, when no other fuel source was available.
Despite its benefits, biodiesel hasn't gone mainstream just yet. A decade ago, Americans burned less than a hundred million gallons of biodiesel, mostly on the road. Last year, they used 1.8 billion gallons -- an increase, but far less than the 55 billion gallons of conventional diesel used last year. Ben Evans, a spokesman for the National Biodiesel Board, said the use of biodiesel is increasing at a “modest pace” nationwide.
Although biodiesel is more expensive than natural gas, Duckworth says that could change over the next few years, as American companies begin exporting more natural gas to other countries, where the fuel costs more. He hopes politicians around the country will start requiring consumers to heat their homes with biodiesel-heavy fuels.
In 2010, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a step in that direction, signing a law requiring all grades of heating oil sold in New York to contain at least 2 percent biodiesel. The law would “reduce pollution, promote the use of alternative fuels, create new 'green' jobs and vastly improve air quality throughout the City," Bloomberg said at the time.
Duckworth stressed that biodiesel is safer, too. “If there had been no gas on that street, there would have been no explosion,” he said.