School bus emissions need state, US attention
AUSTIN, Texas -- Day in and day out, children across the United States are riding to school on aging buses, breathing what some activists say is a dangerous brew of pollutants up to five times dirtier than the air outside.
It is a situation Congress and many states have sought to fix in recent years. In fact, in 2005 federal lawmakers passed a measure to replace or retrofit the dirtiest diesel engines across the nation.
But little has been done.
Around the country, state officials are struggling to find the money to carry out clean school bus initiatives. And Congress has yet to deliver on the $1 billion it promised over five years to help states clean up diesel fleets, including school buses.
"I think at one time or another all our kids are going to be on a bus breathing that harmful air, and that should bother everybody," said Karen Slay, a Lubbock, Texas, mother of four boys who have ridden buses. "In the big scheme of things, it doesn't seem to be that expensive, to me, to retrofit these."
Breathing high concentrations of diesel emissions -- known as particulates -- can cause minor ailments such as headaches, wheezing, and dizziness. But studies have also found the contaminants can do more serious damage. Recent studies by the Environmental Protection Agency and other groups link the emissions to asthma and lung cancer.
Two types of filters are available to reduce the most dangerous emissions on older buses. Diesel particulate filters -- which are installed in place of mufflers at an estimated cost of $700 each -- can reduce tailpipe emissions by at least 85 percent. Closed crankcase filtration systems, which go under the hood and cost $7,500, can reduce engine soot by about 90 percent. A bus can be fitted with one or both filters.
About 390,000 diesel school buses are on the road in the United States according to the EPA. Most newer buses were manufactured to meet stricter emissions guidelines and do not need filters. But about one-third of the nation's diesel school bus fleet, or more than 100,000 buses, were manufactured before 1990 and are big polluters, according to EPA.
Researchers say older buses also let lots of emissions enter through doors and windows. The longer the ride, the more harmful to children, they say.
"The exhaust that swirls around the bus gets into the bus and can stay elevated throughout the ride," said Betin Santos, an air quality specialist for the group Environmental Defense.
In Texas, lawmakers two years ago created a grant program to help schools pay for the filters. But they never funded the effort. The money was supposed to have come from an emissions reduction fund supported by fees on vehicle sales, registrations, and inspections. But lawmakers have diverted much of that revenue to pay for other things.
Many other states also are struggling to pay for cleaner school bus fleets, said Conrad Schneider of the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force, which fights air pollution.
"I think that once people start to understand that there is a simple economic fix to the problem, we could go from a situation where kids are being exposed to a high level of pollution to one where their exposure is virtually eliminated," Schneider said. "State governments will dig down and try to find the money to get this accomplished."
Clean bus advocates hail California as the leader on the issue. Voters there approved $200 million last year to clean up its school bus fleet.
"There were studies done about the health risks for children riding in diesel-powered buses," said Patricia Rey, a spokeswoman for the California Air Resources Board. "The governor and Legislature found it to be a priority. And Californians agreed with that."
But in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and elsewhere, state money to help schools retrofit buses has been nonexistent.
Congress passed the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, a bipartisan initiative that authorized $1 billion to help states clean up diesel fleets. But states have seen none of that money. The Bush administration proposed modest funding for DERA in its last two budget requests, but Congress has not acted.