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Mohawk biodiesel project to utilize casino's vegetable oil

AKWESASNE, N.Y. - Used vegetable oil discarded from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe's Akwesasne Mohawk Casino will soon be used to run the tribe's maintenance vehicles, using an innovative biodiesel system.

Clarkson University, located roughly 30 miles from Akwesasne, had a team of students from its Engineers Without Borders program conduct a feasibility study that concluded the tribe could benefit from the 3,000 gallons of used vegetable oil produced monthly at the casino.

''They told us it would make economic sense for us to move forward,'' said Laura Weber, director of solid waste management for the tribe. ''Of course there are the environmental benefits, too.''

Weber is optimistic that other tribes with casinos will use the Mohawk project as a model to conduct their own environmentally friendly practices.

When the system is in place, casino employees will dump used vegetable oil into a tank, where it will then be put through a series of pipes and other tanks before being turned into useable biodiesel.

The end product will then be transferred to the Mohawk's solid waste transfer station and be used to fuel the trucks responsible for collecting trash throughout Akwesasne.

Biodiesel can be used in any diesel-operated vehicle.

When the tribe confirmed they'd be going ahead with the project, Weber began receiving phone calls and requests for interviews from across northern New York.

''It's cutting-edge technology at work,'' Weber said. ''It's really the alternative fuel drawing all the attention to it.''

Charles Kader, assistant director of public information for the tribe, added, ''Converting used cooking oil from our restaurants into biodiesel will help our community reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, thereby reducing pollution and move the tribe one step closer to our goal

of sustainability.''

The interest in changing things at the transfer station sprang about nearly three years ago when Weber was looking at ways to minimize expenses as the cost of fuel was rising. She contacted Clarkson, her alma mater, and discussions began.

The EWB program ''is a nonprofit humanitarian organization established to partner with developing communities worldwide in order to improve their quality of life,'' according to its Web site.

Nationally, EWB organizations have improved the quality of life for thousand by improving small community sewage systems, implementing improved water filtration systems and improving the infrastructure of roads in small towns.

EWB has had a presence in dozens of countries worldwide, including Malawi, Kenya, Honduras, El Salvador, the United States and Canada.

Clarkson's chapter currently has 21 members.

Implementing the biodiesel project at Akwesasne will cost roughly $8,000. Funding will be paid for by a grant awarded to the tribe by the Environmental Protection Agency; EWB will kick in the rest.

The Mohawks' Environment Division is continuously looking at ways to change procedures in Akwesasne to more environmentally friendly practices.

''It's been noted in the past that we have one of the most advanced environment divisions that you'll find across the country,'' Weber said.

In addition to the biodiesel project, the tribe's other environmentally minded projects have included implementing a fluorescent light exchange program. Those types of lights contain mercury that can be shipped away. They also offer free tire cleanup.

''We're looking at ways to continue to reduce, reuse and recycle,'' Weber said.

The Akwesasne Mohawk Casino is the first known Indian-owned casino to implement its own biodiesel technology. However, other tribes have begun using biodiesel on their territories.

The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota has a biodiesel production plant capable of producing 400 gallons a day of usable biodiesel from vegetable oil.

While the Mohawk biodiesel operation will be small in comparison with other plants around the country, it's a step in the right direction and the tribe is very proud. Once the construction is complete, sometime this spring, they hope others will view it and begin their own plans to begin using biodiesel.

''We designed the project so that it can be a model,'' Weber said. ''We have shared information in the past and we will do the same for this project.''