The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a Massachusetts-based public interest group, is going to war over diesel school buses – and industry groups are fighting back.
Yesterday, the UCS launched a nationwide campaign aimed at replacing the nation’s 442,000 mostly diesel-powered school buses with vehicles powered by alternative fuels such as natural gas.
The group said the diesel emissions from those buses “threaten the health of the over 23-million schoolchildren riding them each day” and wants $500 million of federal money to replace those buses. The UCS appeared on Capitol Hill to promote its campaign to lawmakers. Actor Bradley Whitford, who portrays presidential aide Josh Lyman on the NBC-TV’s The West Wing, also appeared at the event to help raise the profile of the campaign.
The event, however, drew strong response from industry group, such as the Diesel Technology Forum, which pointed out that cleaner diesel technology is already available.
“We agree that there are changes that can be made to improve the safety of children on school buses and we are strong supporters of upgrading the nation’s school bus fleet,” said Allen Schaeffer, the DTF’s executive director. “Today's clean diesel engines are more than eight times cleaner than those made just a decade ago, and further improvements are coming over the next seven years.”
He added that school officials around the nation have overwhelmingly chosen diesel technology to meet their transportation needs, because the fuel is widely available and easy to handle. It is efficient, reliable and affordable and the safest fuel when a school bus is in an accident, according to DTF.
UCS claims that nearly 5,000 school buses built before 1977 do not meet modern safety standards for passenger seating, crash protection, rollover protection, body joint strength and fuel system integrity. In addition, they are not required to meet the more protective federal standards for pollution enacted in 1991.
Together, the UCS said, the older buses release over 1,800 tons of soot in their lifetime – the equivalent of about 263,000 lunch boxes filled with toxic carbon soot, each weighing 14 lb. The group said replacing these older buses with new natural gas powered buses would reduce national emissions of soot by 86 tons per year, while smog-forming nitrogen oxides would be reduced by over 1,400 tons per year.
But Schaeffer said recent studies about air quality on diesel school buses have produced dramatically different results. A recent study conducted by Fairfax County, VA concluded that “breathing the air poses no health risks to our students and staff.” After meticulously analyzing air quality on buses of varying ages, Fairfax County found “no detectable levels of diesel exhaust and no age-related differences in bus air quality.”