Cleaning the Air, One Towboat at a Time

  • July 13, 2018
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  • Bill Droessler

Do you know the difference between a towboat and a tugboat? Well, a tugboat helps move ferries by physically tugging them, and a towboat hauls barges or materials by pushing them from behind. You learn these kinds of things when you’re out trying to improve Minnesota’s air quality with Project Green Fleet.

At first glance, it’s not easy to see how towboats and air quality relate. You see, big engines – like the ones on marine vessels – can operate for several decades, and many of these older engines lack the environmental controls that are now standard in newer models. Project Green Fleet helps repower existing diesel engines and encourages the retirement of older engines and machines.

But let’s get back to the towboat and engines in question. Project Green Fleet recently had the pleasure of repowering the engines on the Itasca, a 45-year old towboat operating on the Mississippi in St. Paul. Thanks to our partnership with Upper River Services and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, we’ve removed the air pollution-reduction equivalent of 16,000 cars from the road annually by repowering the Itasca’s two engines and generator sets with newer, more efficient models.

The Itasca operates along the Mississippi River all the way to upper Iowa. When the river is open, the Itasca runs continuously to support commerce on the river. In addition to the air quality benefits, this retrofit will save 1,020 gallons of fuel each year and allow the Itasca to run cleaner equipment for years to come.

We’re very proud to have assisted local businesses with getting cleaner, more efficient equipment. It’s not always financially practical for businesses to upgrade vessels like the Itasca – and to do it with the cleanest possible equipment years earlier than any upgrades would be needed. By leveraging public and private investments, Clean Air Minnesota partners, through Project Green Fleet, help fill the gap between what’s feasible for businesses and what’s right for the environment and community health.

Star Tribune Local News: Old Mississippi River towboat gets new eco-friendly engine

Star Tribune Business Column: Minnesota Project Green Fleet averts pollution issues, from buses to big boats


The Itasca is one of thousands of retrofits – and the second towboat – that Clean Air Minnesota has provided financial incentive for through Project Green Fleet. The program previously retrofitted every eligible school bus in Minnesota and has expanded to larger, heavy-duty diesel vehicles and equipment.


Cross-sector coalitions – like Clean Air Minnesota – are key to keeping Minnesota’s air clean because much of the state’s air pollution comes from widespread, less-regulated sources like cars, trucks, construction equipment, and other large diesel vehicles and boats. Over the past 15 years, Clean Air Minnesota has proactively reduced the air quality equivalent of 1.3 million cars from the road annually with statewide impact through collaborative, voluntary, cost-effective means.