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UCS Archive: Clean School Bus Pollution Report Card (2006)

This is excerpted from the executive summary of the UCS report, School Bus Pollution Report Card 2006: Grading the States, May 2006.

School Buses—Making Them As Healthy As They Are Safe

School buses are the safest form of transportation for children. Compared with cars or transit buses, school buses are involved in significantly fewer accidents, injuries, and fatalities. However, the pollution from older school buses may pose risks to children's health that tarnish the image of the familiar yellow school bus.

 

The exhaust from diesel fuel, which powers about 95 percent of the more than 505,000 school buses on U.S. roads today, is linked with asthma, heart disease, cancer, and even premature death. Recent studies have found that pollution can concentrate inside school buses, leading to even higher exposures for children who ride buses. Luckily, today's cleaner fuels and pollution controls for diesel vehicles can dramatically cut pollution from school buses. Many states have made progress in reducing pollution, but we are still a long way from ensuring that our children are riding in "clean" school buses.

Pollution Report Card—Grading the States

Across the country, the pollution performance of state school buses varies widely depending on fleet age, fuel choice, and investments in retrofits and cleaner fuels. The School Bus Pollution Report Card 2006 report analyzes the amount of pollution released from the average state school bus. Each state received a letter grade (A B, C, or D) for estimated tailpipe emissions of soot, which warrants the most concern because of its potential to cause toxic "hot spots"—areas of higher exposure for children in or near buses. The emission performance of a diesel bus equipped with a diesel particulate filter (DPF, or "soot trap") established the baseline for our highest grade (A), which no states came close to achieving. We distributed the remaining grades on a curve.

We also evaluated state performance in two secondary categories: school bus cleanup programs and tailpipe emissions of smog-forming pollution. In comparing cleanup programs, we calculated the percent of school bus soot reduced through pollution control retrofits and use of cleaner fuels such as natural gas and biodiesel, and assigned each state a rank of Good, Above Average, Average, or Poor. States that failed to conduct any cleanup activities received a score of Incomplete. We also calculated smog-forming tailpipe emissions from the average state school bus and used a curve to assign each state a rank of Above Average, Average, or Poor.

STATE

SOOT POLLUTION GRADE

CLEANUP PROGRAM RANK

SMOG POLLUTION RANK

Alabama 

Poor 

Above Average 

Alaska 

Above Average 

Above Average 

Arizona 

Above Average 

Poor 

Arkansas 

Poor 

Poor 

California 

Good 

Poor 

Colorado 

Above Average 

Poor 

Connecticut 

Above Average 

Above Average 

Delaware 

Incomplete 

Above Average 

District of Columbia 

Incomplete 

Above Average 

Florida 

Poor 

Average 

Georgia 

Above Average 

Average 

Hawaii 

Incomplete 

Poor 

Idaho 

Incomplete 

Average 

Illinois 

Average 

Average 

Indiana 

Average 

Above Average 

Iowa 

Above Average

Above Average

Kansas 

Incomplete 

Incomplete 

Kentucky 

Poor 

Average 

Louisiana 

Incomplete 

Poor 

Maine 

Above Average 

Above Average 

Maryland 

Poor 

Above Average 

Massachusetts 

Average 

Above Average 

Michigan 

Poor 

Average 

Minnesota 

Average 

Poor 

Mississippi 

Average 

Poor 

Missouri 

Average 

Above Average 

Montana 

Poor 

Poor 

Nebraska 

Average 

Poor 

Nevada 

Above Average 

Above Average 

New Hampshire

Poor 

Average 

New Jersey 

Poor 

Above Average 

New Mexico 

Poor 

Average 

New York 

B

Above Average

Above Average 

North Carolina 

Above Average 

Average 

North Dakota 

Poor 

Poor 

Ohio 

Average 

Average 

Oklahoma 

Incomplete 

Poor 

Oregon 

Above Average 

Average 

Pennsylvania 

Average 

Above Average 

Rhode Island 

Average 

Average 

South Carolina 

Above Average 

Poor 

South Dakota 

Incomplete 

Poor 

Tennessee 

Average 

Above Average 

Texas 

Above Average 

Average 

Utah 

Poor 

Poor 

Vermont 

Incomplete 

Average 

Virginia 

Average 

Average 

Washington 

Good 

Poor 

West Virginia 

Poor 

Average 

Wisconsin 

Average 

Average 

Wyoming 

Incomplete 

Above Average 

Selected Report Findings

  • The average school bus is nine years old and emits nearly twice as much pollution per mile as a tractor-trailer truck (or "big rig").
  • Only Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, and New York scored above the national average in all three categories we evaluated.
  • Nationally, soot pollution from school buses has been reduced more than two percent through local, state, and federal actions. Nine states and the District of Columbia did not appear to have taken any action to clean up school buses in 2005.
  • Even states receiving highest marks for school bus cleanup programs are still challenged by older, dirtier buses in their fleets with Washington receiving a D and California a C for soot pollution.
  • Buses are still the safest way to transport children to school. Parents should work with school administrators to explore pollution control retrofits, cleaner fuels, and bus replacement.

Policy Recommendations

"The Five Rs:" A variety of retrofit and cleaner-fuel technologies are available today and expected tomorrow for reducing pollution from school buses. These technologies play a key role in the cleanup strategies we refer to as "the five Rs:" retrofitting, refueling, replacement, repair, and reduced idling.

Expand Federal Assistance: The federal government should set a goal of reducing children's exposure to school bus pollution to the lowest reasonable level. Through the five "Rs," emissions can be reduced 85 percent or more over the next five years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) current goal of retrofitting or replacing all school buses by 2010 is an important step, but only provides a fraction of the benefits that current emission control technology can achieve.

The EPA's Clean School Bus USA program has been a resounding success, but the program's annual budget remains small—ranging between five million and 7.5 million dollars since its inception in 2003. The average annual investment is roughly equal to the capital cost of 75 new conventional school buses. These efforts will be complemented by a national Clean School Bus Grant Program established by Congress in 2005 and authorized at $55 million a year for fiscal 2006 and 2007.

School buses are also eligible for cleanup under the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, a comprehensive national cleanup program authorized by Congress at $200 million a year for five years. However, because authorization amounts do not ensure actual funding, it is vital that these programs receive robust budget and appropriations support from both the White House and Congress over the next few years to ensure real progress.

Expand State Initiative: States should follow the models used by California and Washington to reduce school bus pollution. California has reduced its soot pollution nearly nine percent through its Lower-Emission School Bus Program, which has installed particulate traps on more than 10 percent of the state's fleet and retired hundreds of older buses since 2000. Washington has reduced its soot pollution more than seven percent through its Clean Buses, Healthy Kids Retrofit Project. Washington's ultimate goal is to retrofit every one of its school buses.

Strengthen Federal Air Quality Standards: Children are experiencing health problems related to particulate and ozone pollution even in areas that meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Strengthening these standards is critical to protecting children's health and will provide added incentive for states to reduce soot emissions from all diesel engines.

More Research & Technology: More research is needed into the sources of pollution inside buses and strategies for reducing children's exposure to it. Additionally, all diesel trucks and buses should be subject to inspection and maintenance programs that will ensure pollution controls remain effective in the real world over the two-, three-, and even four-decade lifetime of the vehicles.

Finally, school buses should, like the most advanced passenger cars and trucks, come equipped with the cutting-edge technologies that will power our future. The welfare of our children should drive investments in school buses that meet 2010 standards today, hybrid and plug-in buses, and (over the long term) pollution-free buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells. 

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