The last time the Union of Concerned Scientists evaluated Oklahoma's efforts to reduce kids' exposure to unhealthy school bus exhaust, they gave the state a "D" on its report card.
"Oklahoma did terrible" on that 2006 report, said Patty Monahan, deputy director of the environmental group's Clean Vehicles program. "At the time, it had no program to speak of."
That appears to be changing " at least somewhat.
The state Department of Environmental Quality in September announced a cost-sharing grant program set up to help school districts clean up the emissions from school bus tailpipes. Such "retrofits" of existing buses have been done in many other states through a federally funded Clean Diesel Campaign since 2003. But the program, which is funded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, never made its way to the Sooner State until this year, according to state environmental officials. Now, they say, more than $400,000 will be made available to Oklahoma schools that apply for the upgrades.
Most school buses run on diesel fuel because it is cheap and reliable. It's also dirty, and studies have linked the fuel to health problems like asthma and possible cancer.
Recently updated federal standards require diesel engines to be less polluting than they have been in the past, but those laws only apply to vehicles made after 2007. Older diesel engines emit higher levels of soot and toxic chemicals that can become lodged in the lungs of kids, causing breathing problems and other ill health effects.
All of Oklahoma City's 198 school buses were built before 2007 and adhere to the old emission standards, said Tierney Cook, a spokeswoman for the district. The school district may apply for grants to make its buses cleaner, but has not made a final decision on the matter, Cook said.
The EPA estimates that 24 million American children ride school buses daily, and, on average, they spend over one hour on the bus each day.
Some school districts in Oklahoma have taken on the issue themselves. Putnam City Schools, for instance, recommends " but does not require " that bus drivers shut off their engines when they pull up to a school, according to a spokesperson. Such "anti-idling" rules reduce the amount of pollution kids waiting for the buses breathe in and are recommended by health groups and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The state DEQ is also encouraging both school bus and truck drivers to stop idling their engines for health reasons and also because the practice cuts costs.
A fleet of 100 school buses, for example, that stopped idling would save 4,500 gallons of diesel fuel each year, with a savings of about $17,000, according to estimates by the EPA.
It's unclear how far the $400,000 grant may go in Oklahoma or how effective the program will be. Technologies for the cleaner buses vary wildly " with emissions reductions anywhere between 20 and 90 percent, said Tracy Rudisill, an environmental programs specialist with the Oklahoma DEQ.
VEHICLE UPGRADE COSTS
Each vehicle upgrade costs from about $600 to $10,000, she said, so the total grant could upgrade between 40 and 650 buses if local districts didn't put forward any money to match the grants.
At best, that's about 9 percent of the state's total fleet, which included about 7,600 buses in 2004, the last time the state Department of Education conducted a survey on the subject, said Shelly Hickman, the department's spokeswoman.
Hickman said some school districts have improved their fuel efficiency in an effort to save money and that those changes also help reduce emissions.
State environmental workers said there's room for cleaner fuel programs to expand.
"This is just a start," said Scott Thomas, a programs manager in the state DEQ's air quality division.
Thomas said Oklahoma has never had a clean diesel program for public schools before this grant money became available. The EPA program doled out $30 million for the program before it expanded to include Oklahoma this year. That money helps 2 million students breathe cleaner air, according to the agency.
Rick Lane, an Oklahoma field representative for the American Federation of Teachers, expressed concern about how long it took for clean school bus programs to catch on in Oklahoma.
"We don't want anyone to be in an unhealthy atmosphere," he said. "We want every student to come to school and feel they can be in a safe environment."
When cars and buses are turned on, they spew exhaust into the air, causing a number of health problems and contributing to climate change. By not idling your vehicle when it's stopped, you can somewhat reduce your impact. Here are some facts about idling, from the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality:
"John David Sutter