Group Advocates Clean-Running School Buses

Diesel fumes have emerged as the new bogeyman in the battle against smog, and more needs to be done to protect children exposed to pollutants in school buses, an environmental group says.

Diesel fumes have emerged as the new bogeyman in the battle against smog, and more needs to be done to protect children exposed to pollutants in school buses, an environmental group says.

The Union of Concerned Scientists gave California an average grade of C in its "School Bus Pollution Report Card 2006," although it generally praised the state for its efforts to replace older buses with cleaner models.

"We want more funding in California for more school buses," said Patricia Monahan, the report's author. "There is attention being paid in California, but it's not enough."

Diesel fumes produce tiny particles and vapors that can penetrate deep into lungs and even travel throughout the body, causing asthma, heart problems and early death.

Some studies show children are exposed to higher levels of diesel fumes because of school buses. Monahan emphasized, though, that parents should not pull their children off buses. They are still the safest way to get to and from school, she said.

Her report was released Wednesday.

Air pollution has a profound effect on children, including reduced lung capacity and asthma, she said. Some recent studies, which included children from the Inland Empire, show air pollution actually causes asthma.

"A child born in San Bernardino County has a much greater risk of developing asthma than a child born elsewhere in the state," said Dr. Sunil Saini of Upland, who specializes in treating asthma and allergies.

About 85 percent of California's 505,000 school buses continue to run on diesel, Monahan said, with about 5 percent running on the cleanest burning fuel, compressed natural gas, and the other 10 percent using devices called particulate traps that can cut a diesel engine's emissions by 85 percent. Southern California has an aggressive program in place to replace buses.

In 2001, the South Coast Air Quality Management District ordered school districts to buy buses with the cleanest-burning fuel when they replaced older buses.

Since 2000, the district has spent $55.7 million to help school districts buy 271 new CNG buses, 86 cleaner-running diesel buses and particulate traps for another 200 buses.

With money already spent and money in the pipeline, Southern California will have spent about $97 million on replacing or retrofitting diesel buses, said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the AQMD.

Next week, the air district's board will consider spending $3 million to replace the 15 oldest buses in the region with CNG buses, with eight of those due to go to Fontana Unified School District. The Fontana buses date back as far as 1959.

Applications are being accepted to divide up $14.4 million for replacement buses and another $5.4 million for adding traps to existing buses.

If the current level of funding for replacements is maintained, all the older buses in the region would be swapped out within a decade, Atwood said.

The Union of Concerned Scientists held two press conferences nationally and chose San Bernardino for its western event because Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, has pushed for millions of dollars to help clean up diesel.

A state leader in the move toward cleaner school buses has been Colton Joint Unified School District, which uses CNG buses on 84 percent of its routes.

The district began making the complete switch to CNG buses a decade ago, and has done it largely with grant money. CNG buses cost roughly $30,000 more than a traditional diesel bus, but Colton's aggressiveness in chasing grants has saved a fortune, said Rick Feinstein, director of transportation for the district.

"Little by little, we whittled away the diesel buses," he said. "We wanted to do our part to help improve air quality in the basin for our students and staff."

The buses require infrequent oil changes because there is no diesel soot, he said. The oil is changed every 20,000 miles, or once a year, and the used oil is remarkably clean, he said.

And thanks to the recent run up in diesel prices, Feinstein estimated the district is saving $20,000 a month in fuel costs.

Ontario-Montclair School District originally opposed the AQMD bus rule because officials were worried about cost.

Thanks to the grant money made available, the district in the past four years has bought 10 CNG buses, 12 of the cleanest diesel buses and retrofitted four others with particulate traps, said David Walthall, the district's director of Transportation.

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

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