Fuel gelling gives Pine-Richland students a day off Jan. 8

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The recent record-breaking temperatures gave thousands of local school students an unexpected break from classes. Those in the Pine-Richland School District went back a day after many other suburban school districts.

While many school districts in the region summoned their students to their desks on Jan. 8, Pine-Richland posted on its website another canceled day, explaining: “Extreme temperatures are causing the fuel to gel in the buses, which is making it difficult for the buses to operate.”

Brian Miller, transportation coordinator for the district, said the decision was made in consultation with the district’s bus provider, Monark Student Transportation Corp.

“We had a lot of communication the night before and early that morning. We ended up going with the recommendation of the contractor [Monark,]” Mr. Miller explained.

The issue involved the extreme cold temperatures and the concern that the fuel used by the buses “could end up posing some issues during the day due to gelling,” he said.

During Mr. Miller's three-year tenure with the district, the issue has never arisen before, but he said temperatures hadn’t been quite so extreme before. Monark has been servicing the district for six years. It’s contract expires at the end of the 2014-2015 school year.

Mr. Miller said he “isn’t fully certain” why the gelling issue posed problems for Pine-Richland when other districts were able to get their buses moving on Wednesday. He said the situation will be fully discussed in future meetings with Monark representatives.

Mark D. Schmitt, owner of Monark, said he personally made the recommendation to Pine-Richland officials that school be canceled Jan. 8. Mr. Schmitt said Monark provides bus service to a half-dozen private schools and districts in the region.

“It was a situation where I wanted to be safe rather than risk having some buses break down on the side of the road, loaded with schoolchildren,” he said.

Mr. Schmitt said he didn’t make the recommendation lightly, noting that he didn’t recommend shutting down Pine-Richland on Jan. 6, when several other neighboring districts closed.

The tipping factor was gelling in the fuel systems of the buses. “It wasn’t happening to all of them, but it was happening to enough of them that it had me worried,” he said. “I just didn’t want to take the chance. They can run in the parking lot, then just shut down on the road.”

He said the ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel has some additional moisture in it that can freeze at low temperatures under certain circumstances. He said he wishes he could park all of his buses in a garage to protect them from the elements but that’s not financially feasible.

Mr. Schmitt said he is unable to explain why some buses were impacted and others weren’t, speculating that a range of particulars could have been in play. “There are many factors and it can just happen,” he said.

In 2006, federal environmental standards went into effect requiring the use of low-sulfur diesel fuel, which experts agreed burns more cleanly but tends to congeal at low temperatures. Some bus companies deal with the problem by parking in garages and using electric block heaters.

Mr. Schmitt said his company has a “great track record” with keeping its buses on the move but that, given the particular circumstances of last week, “I just didn’t want to take any chances. Children’s safety was my No. 1 concern.”

Pine-Richland schools spokeswoman Rachel Hathhorn said only one day will have to be made up and the day will be Feb. 17.

She said the district will continue to discuss with Monark what kind of steps can be taken to avoid the gelling issue.

Karen Kane: kkane@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9180. 

Karen Kane: kkane@post-gazette.com or at 724-772-9180.

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