School buses don’t have to be toxic

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By Merilee Dannemann

School buses can be hazardous to your children’s health.

Most school buses, including New Mexico’s, are powered with diesel. The diesel fumes contain enough toxic substances to cause an identifiable health hazard to children (and others, especially the drivers) who are regularly exposed to the fumes.

Documentation is ample. Diesel exhaust has more than 40 toxic air contaminants, including nitrogen oxides and known or suspected cancer-causing substances, such as benzene, arsenic and formaldehyde.

Diesel soot from school buses has also been associated with reduced lung function and increased incidences of pneumonia in children, according to a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. And New Mexico has a respiratory disease problem.

“Asthma is one of the most common chronic diseases in New Mexico, with an estimated 150,000 adults and 47,000 children currently having the disease,” said a report from the state Health Department. It notes that asthma contributes to reduced quality of life and health care costs.

Asthma rates in southeastern New Mexico are the worst in the state, based on measures for middle school and high school students and for Medicaid recipients, according to the report. Quay (7.06 percent) and Roosevelt (7.11 percent) counties had the highest persistent asthma prevalence. African-Americans have significantly higher rates than other ethnic groups. The report also finds that lower income individuals suffer higher rates of asthma.

There’s a move afoot to replace diesel buses with electric buses. It even has a suggested funding source.

The school bus memorial, HJM 6, proposes replacing diesel-powered school buses with electric buses. The sponsors are Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, and Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque. The memorial has been endorsed by a number of environmental groups.

The proposed funding source is money expected from the Volkswagen settlement. In 2017, Volkswagen admitted to rigging millions of vehicles worldwide with software to dodge emissions tests. New Mexico’s expected share is $18 million. The state’s Environment Department explains that the funds must be used for projects that reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides from vehicles. School buses are mentioned as an eligible category.

This initiative was written as a nonbinding memorial rather than a bill because the terms of the fund give the governor, not the Legislature, power to decide how to allocate the money.

A legislative analysis says existing state law requires school buses to be replaced every 12 years. So there is already a schedule for replacing old buses, which would normally be funded by capital outlay. One stated purpose for Volkswagen settlement money is to replace eligible vehicles with more fuel-efficient alternatives.

The analysis cautions that the $18 million is not likely to come in all at once but would probably be spread over three years. It notes that currently the state has 201 buses older than the 12-year replacement cycle.

A separate analysis from the Legislative Education Study Committee references a study from Delaware for cost information. The Delaware study shows electric buses cost considerably more to purchase but with savings over time, the cost after 12 years is only slightly higher per bus than the cost for diesel. It says the $18 million could purchase approximately 69 electric school buses.

I live down the street from a high school. Twice a day, the buses line up and idle. Until now, I’ve never realized how toxic they are.

At this writing, the memorial received a tie vote in its first legislative committee. It may be in competition with other proposals that also involve replacing dirty fuel with better alternatives. It’s probably a very good thing that this settlement money came with sensible restrictions.