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Environmental Op-Ed Series: Cleaner Buses Help Us All Breathe Easier

May 04, 2010 By Rachel Huck, student, Macalester College

Spring in Minnesota means streets exploding into a myriad of color as trees begin to bloom and people enjoying the fresh air and sun any chance they get, marking the transition from a cold, dreary winter to the long awaited warmth. Children play outside while school buses line up waiting to transport them to the hallowed halls of academia (commonly known as elementary school).  Yet, just as the blooming trees and happy children are ushered in by rising temperatures, with children comes asthma, and invisible clouds of pollution follow those big, yellow buses relentlessly.  Needless to say, asthmatic children and diesel exhaust don't mix.

Enter Project Green Fleet--a collaborative effort among businesses, government agencies and nonprofit organizations.  Project Green Fleet works to protect public health and improve air quality by reducing emissions from Minnesota school buses, heavy-duty trucks, and other diesel-run vehicles such as snowplows and dump trucks.

Buses are made "green" by the installation of federally approved filters and mufflers that can reduce engine emissions by up to 50 percent. The process is limited to old buses with diesel engines because new buses have "greener" engines and create less pollution, so they do not need the upgrade. Though the retrofits are reserved for older buses, 56 school districts in Minnesota, as well as 31 private and municipal vehicles, have been able to take advantage of this program.

Diesel exhaust contains small particles, as well as smog-forming and toxic air pollutants. The exhaust emitted by idling school buses can create severe health risks, especially to children.  When buses idle in the schoolyard, the exhaust can also pollute the air inside the school itself, posing a risk to children throughout the day.  This exposure can lead to lung damage and respiratory problems and is associated with increased frequency of childhood illness.  The pollutant- filled air triggers asthma and existing allergies.

Air pollution from diesel vehicles has health implications for everyone, but children may be more vulnerable to this type of pollution due to the fact that children breathe 50 percent more air per pound of body weight than adults do.

 It is no coincidence that today, nearly 10 percent of children have asthma, and the total number of people with the disease is expected to increase by 100 million by 2025, as reported by the Center for Disease Control.  And with more than 24 million U.S. children riding the bus to and from school every day, school buses' diesel exhaust is a serious threat that cannot be ignored.

Though Minnesota currently operates well within the bounds of the federal Clean Air Act, the Minnesota Environmental Initiative (MEI), a nonprofit partner of Project Green Fleet, is constantly seeking solutions to environmental problems through collaborative action. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognized the ingenuity of Project Green Fleet last summer by awarding MEI with a $3 million grant to fund the program. The funds are currently being used to retrofit school buses and other vehicles with pollution control equipment, provide engine repowers, vehicle replacements, and idle reduction technologies.

MEI will be able to upgrade at least 684 diesel engines, including up to 275 school buses statewide. So why isn't every bus company in Minnesota chomping at the bit to get involved? This is perhaps due to a lack of awareness on the part of local governments and their constituents.

Global warming and pollution control are far from being solved at this point. In 2007, the EPA issued important regulations that required dramatic reductions in emissions from new diesel vehicles starting in 2007--but this applies to new vehicles only. The lifespan of the average diesel vehicle is nearly 30 years, allowing many buses and trucks to drive over a million miles. With this kind of longevity, we must be concerned with the amount of exhaust diesels pump into the air we breathe.  Yet, if more organizations put into action Project Green Fleet's program, the simple retrofitting of diesel engines with two pieces of pollution control equipment can reduce the harmful exhaust by up to 50 percent.

The problems developing from diesel exhaust is not a problem unique to Minnesota. If executed on a nationwide basis, this program would improve air quality and public health. Project Green Fleet is an amazing start, but we must push for large-scale implementation and additional transportation innovations.

Unless we are serious about decreasing vehicle emissions, developing cleaner fuels and expanding programs such as Project Green Fleet, we will risk more than a few trees harmed by the pollution. Our health and the health of those around us are at stake, and it is up to us to take action to fix the problem.

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