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California and the West

Activists Criticize Diesel School Bus Spending Plan

Pollution: State board wants to allocate $15 million of a $50-million budget for diesel engines that are much improved but still dirtier than natural gas models.

November 29, 2000|GARY POLAKOVIC | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL STAFF WRITER

Gov. Gray Davis' administration is ready to distribute $50 million to protect children from soot-spewing school buses, but environmentalists are crying foul because nearly one-third of the money will go to promote diesel engines.

Under the program, school districts across California can receive $40 million to buy 400 new buses, plus an additional $10 million to buy soot-capturing devices that would clean up 1,500 old buses. The governor included money in the budget at the urging of clean-air advocates to promote new technologies and fuels that cut smog and protect children's health.

Most of the new buses--$25 million worth--must be powered by natural gas engines, which are far cleaner than existing engines. But environmentalists are upset that the state Air Resources Board plans to allow $15 million to be used for buying so-called green diesel motors, which are cleaner than those in use today, but produce at least 20% more ozone-forming emissions than alternative-fuel models.

"This is a sellout," said Gail Ruderman-Feuer, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We should be using public dollars to subsidize the cleanest fuels available, especially for our children."

Environmental advocacy groups hope to reverse the decision before it is finalized by the agency's governing board, which meets Dec. 7 in Sacramento to consider the matter.

Two months ago, the air board had opposed using funds for anything but the cleanest engines. Under other programs run by the agency to cut diesel exhaust from other types of vehicles, only the cleanest engines are eligible for public funds.

Environmentalists charge that the agency relaxed its rules this time to benefit a Chicago-based diesel engine maker.

"The sole reason they are doing this is because they've been lobbied heavily," Feuer said.

Air quality officials denied that charge, and said the decision is rooted in economics, not politics. The new diesel engines are not the cleanest available, but they are cheaper. Clean diesel engines cost about $105,000 each. That is about $25,000 less than a natural gas model. They also are much easier to refuel because school districts can use existing diesel pumps.

The result is that districts can use the limited amount of money to buy and deploy more clean diesel engines than natural gas engines, air board officials said.

"I don't think we are playing politics with kids' health. We are trying to put kids in clean school buses," said Michael P. Kenny, executive officer for the state air board.

Rapid technological progress in reducing diesel exhaust made the diesel motors, which are manufactured by International Truck and Engine Corp., more appealing, Kenny said. The new diesel engines have the potential of cutting particulate emissions by 90% and nitrogen oxides by 25% compared with the engines now in use, according to International.

"It did not make sense to exclude them from the funding if the overall goal was to reduce the toxicity exposure to children," Kenny said. "We get good health benefits by distributing the money across three categories: compressed natural gas buses, green diesel and retrofits for existing buses."

But while air board officials deny that politics was involved, International, which makes 60% of the nation's school bus engines, put on a significant lobbying effort to win the board's support.

The dispute illustrates how cleaning the sky and protecting children from cancer-causing pollution is turning into a struggle over which companies will receive millions of dollars in government support to advance cleaner technologies.

About 70% of California's 24,000 school buses are powered by diesel engines that spew 13 tons of soot into the sky daily, much of it near playgrounds, classrooms and bus stops frequented by children. Many of the buses in operation were built before pollution controls were required.

Diesel exhaust contains gases that mix in the air to form ozone, which can aggravate asthma and respiratory problems and cause loss of lung function. Soot from the engines contains tiny particles that the air board in 1998 declared to be a cancer-causing agent.

Children, with their active lifestyles and growing lungs, are especially susceptible to air pollution.

Given those concerns, Davis proposed the clean school bus program as part of a wider effort to reduce environmental health risks for children. But he left it up to state agencies and local air pollution districts to figure out how to distribute the money.

To push their argument that they should be eligible for some of the funds, officials of International have taken a big blue and yellow school bus on a traveling road show across California.

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