CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Members of the Kanawha County Commission approved a letter of intent Thursday to buy 20 natural gas-powered vehicles if a private firm will build a natural gas filling station.For six months, county officials have been working with the Charleston Area Alliance and other local agencies on a plan to bring a natural gas-powered vehicle fleet to the area. County officials believe the vast Marcellus Shale gas deposits will soon provide a huge supply of cheap natural gas to help ease the bite from high petroleum prices, and create a local industry tapping, refining and pumping the gas and converting vehicles to run on the fuel source.The Kanawha Valley Regional Transit Authority has already agreed to buy eight natural gas-powered buses, which are expected to be delivered next year. The Kanawha County Commission also has a new SUV that runs on either natural gas or gasoline.The next step is to get a natural gas filling station, which will probably be located at the KRT bus depot in Charleston. County officials and members of the Charleston Area Alliance are currently lining up potential customers for the station to make it worthwhile for an entrepreneur to invest in the facility.Matt Thomas, special project coordinator for the Kanawha County Commission, said the Alliance already has a letter of intent from Mountaineer Gas Co. to buy three natural gas-powered vehicles if a station is built. The Charleston Sanitary Board is thinking about buying four vehicles, Yeager Airport is discussing the purchase of three, and Charleston Newspapers is considering five to eight natural gas-powered vehicles.At current utility rates, natural gas costs about half as much as the equivalent amount of gasoline for a vehicle. It costs about $10,000 to convert a car or truck to burn natural gas, but county officials are pushing for legislation to give government agencies tax incentives to switch their fleets over to the alternate fuel.County officials hope a natural gas fueling station will be built by the time KRT's new buses arrive next year. Meanwhile, the County Commission has agreed to put in a slow-fueling station to fill up the county's existing SUV.
Thomas said the vehicle can be filled from any existing natural gas line with the proper connection. It takes about eight hours to fill the natural gas tank using the slow-fill method.Also Thursday, commissioners Kent Carper, Dave Hardy and Hoppy Shores signed off on two water extension projects recently approved by West Virginia American Water Co. Water company officials stopped helping fund water projects last year after the state Public Service Commission turned down a massive rate increase.But water company officials are now in a more cooperative mood. Colt Sandoro, special assistant to County Manager Jennifer Sayre, said water company officials have finished planning work on a water project to bring water to 19 customers in the Coalburg area and 38 in the Mahan area. The Mahan extension would also bring water and fire protection to the West Virginia Turnpike travel plazas nearby.Most of the money for the projects came from Abandoned Mine Lands funds, used to restore water to areas where the water table was damaged by past mining operations.Carper hopes the new mood at West Virginia American Water will allow county officials to put a water project back on the table to bring water to about 145 homes in the Leatherwood and Reamer Hill areas of the county, where residents have been trying to get clean water for more than 40 years. A project to bring water to the area fell apart last year after the water company pulled out of a $1.1 million funding deal for the project.County officials have since lost the grants that would have helped pay for the project, but Carper hopes more money can be found."We're putting the pieces back together," he said.Reach Rusty Marks at email@example.com or 304-348-1215.