Barrels of toxic chemicals and oil led residents of a southwest Phoenix neighborhood to wonder if their neighbor was making methamphetamine in the garage.
Authorities later uncovered an unregulated biodiesel fuel factory. The chemicals sat next to electric sockets and other possible ignition points under a child’s bedroom window.
Phoenix fire officials say it’s part of a trend of area residents using chemicals like methanol and lye to create cheap fuel. Those same chemicals are used to make meth, a highly addictive, illegal drug.
Phoenix requires a permit to handle the flammable and combustible materials used in biodiesel. But many home brewers ignore zoning regulations and waste-disposal requirements, said Joe McElvaney, a Phoenix fire protection engineer.
Because there’s little oversight of biodiesel home brewers, Mayor Phil Gordon announced Friday that the fire department will partner with other municipal offices on a biodiesel task force.
The unit will educate residents on the hazards of skirting permits, codes and existing regulations. It’s designed to bring residents in compliance to produce biodiesel without triggering an explosion, said Gordon and Fire Chief Bob Khan.
Some biodiesel home brewers improperly store chemicals or heat their fuel in water heaters, methods that could lead to explosions, flash fires or chemical burns.
But there are those who do it safely, such as Dynamite Biofuels Co-Op, founded by Gene Leach, who said his family runs everything from his wife’s Mercedes diesel SUV to recreational quads on homemade biodiesel for about $1.50 per gallon.
Leach said he talked to fire inspectors and Maricopa County Health Services to comply with regulations and that local governments should build stronger partnerships with groups like his to avoid people trying to do it themselves.
“The technology is new enough that in terms of government dealing with the home-brew community and co-ops, no one really knows what to do with us,” he said.