A project to build a long-planned hydrogen vehicle fueling station at San Francisco International Airport is likely headed for the scrap heap due to squabbles over liability and fears of a "catastrophic" gas explosion.
Now that negotiations have broken off with the would-be operator of the station at the southwest corner of SFO, the Airport Commission is slated to vote Tuesday on whether to kill the project. In a report to commissioners, Airport Director John Martin advocated dumping the roughly $3 million endeavor.
Martin says Linde LLC rejected airport officials' demand to accept full legal responsibility for any mishaps on the wedge-shaped site near Millbrae Avenue. At the same time, airport officials were left feeling skittish after the Pacific Gas & Electric natural gas line blast in San Bruno, hydrogen detonations at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan and the fireball during a May hydrogen leak at an AC Transit facility in Emeryville.
"These risk factors portend an incompatibility for a hydrogen fuel station near active runways and major roadways," Martin wrote.
Linde, which spent three years negotiating with the city, didn't immediately respond to emails seeking comment Monday. A spokeswoman for a pro-hydrogen car group said Americans have been using hydrogen without harm for more than 50 years.
"I think that like every other fuel, we have learned to handle it safely," said Chris White, spokeswoman for
Yet at the airport, officials didn't feel comfortable setting up the station until Linde agreed to indemnify them. Airport spokesman Mike McCarron said all city contracts with outside vendors require indemnity. From the airport officials' perspective, they are relying on the operator's expertise to safely run the station.
"A hydrogen explosion in close proximity to active runways and a highway could be catastrophic and result in significant loss of life," Martin wrote.
The airport has invested about $61,000 in preparations for work at the station site. The airport will also have to give up about $1.7 million in state grants and another $2.4 million that was to go to a firm called Calstart for the construction of a hydrogen-powered airport bus.
The head of City/County Association of Governments said it's not the first proposed hydrogen fueling site in San Mateo County to be stillborn. One proposed for San Carlos didn't make it either, said C/CAG Executive Director Richard Napier. Yet he lamented abandoning a location so close to so many drivers.
"That was a dynamite site," Napier said. "It's hard to find one as good as that."
The Airport Commission meets 9 a.m. Tuesday in room 400 of City Hall at 400 Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco.
Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335. Follow him at Twitter.com/melvinreport.