Friday, April 5, 2019

A breath of fresh air

Ralph Pruitt, the superintendent of the tiny Skamania School District in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge, is pretty pleased with his new bus. The 48-passenger yellow Blue Bird arrived in mid-March from the factory and was put right to work, ferrying the district’s 85 students to and from school each day.

The new Blue Bird replaced a bus built in 1984. That’s not a typo – finances are tight at small, rural school districts, and replacing the 35-year-old bus was simply not in Skamania’s budget. At least, not until the Washington Department of Ecology offered the district a $35,000 grant toward a new, lower-emission bus.

Skamania School District's new school bus.
 “The new bus is beautiful,” Pruitt said. “The bus driver says that it drives like a minivan.”

Last fall, Ecology used $12 million from Washington State’s Volkswagen settlement to help school districts across the state buy a total of 336 low-emission school buses. All of those new buses replaced buses from 2000 and earlier, with outdated emissions controls. The oldest bus of all, however, was that near-antique from Skamania with 203,000 miles on the odometer.

“Diesel pollution is a serious health threat – and kids are one of the groups most at risk,” said Mike Boyer, an environmental specialist with Ecology working to invest the state’s Volkswagen settlement. “Helping so many school districts replace dirty diesels with modern, cleaner engines protects students – and improves air quality for all of us.”

Washington State received a total of $140 million from the Volkswagen settlements, which came after the automaker installed illegal software on many of its diesel vehicles. The software would cheat emissions tests by only activating a car’s full emission controls when connected to testing equipment. That meant that, in ordinary driving, the cars emitted between 10 and 40 times the legal limits of harmful nitrogen oxides.

Ecology is leading Washington’s efforts to invest the settlement funds into reducing air pollution and advancing zero-emission vehicles. Along with the 336 school buses powered by clean diesel or propane engines, Ecology is investing millions more to help Washington transit agencies and school districts buy all-electric buses. Other portions of the settlement will go toward supporting electric vehicle charging stations, electrifying state ferries, and replacing diesel trucks used at public ports with clean diesel models.

For Skamania, the new bus is literally a breath of fresh air.

“Just standing by it, you can tell it’s cleaner,” Pruitt said. “It’s just so quiet.”

Ecology’s grant covered about a third of the bus’s purchase price. Along with lower emissions, having a new bus also gives the district peace of mind, Pruitt said.

“We’ve been struggling with keeping our fleet healthy enough to stay on the road,” he said. “For us to get the opportunity to get a new bus was amazing.”

Learn more
Volkswagen enforcement action
News release – “$22 million from VW settlement goes toward electric transit buses and low-emission school buses”

By Andrew Wineke, Air Quality

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