“Every one of those children’s lungs was being impacted at some level whether they had asthma or not.”
Cleaner school buses are coming to Arizona thanks to new funding, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced last month.
The Theodore Roosevelt School on the White Mountain Apache Reservation will receive a $300,000 American Rescue Plan Electric School Bus Rebate, while Glendale Union High School District will receive a $20,000 Diesel Emissions Reduction Act School Bus Rebate.
Environmental and health groups across the country have been calling for a shift from diesel school buses to ones that run on electricity—or at the very least, new gas-powered buses that meet current emission standards.
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The EPA said it plans to announce a new rebate program for cleaner school buses as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed in November. The law put $5 billion toward increasing electric vehicle infrastructure, including charging stations.
“Protecting the health of our children and fighting climate change are top priorities for EPA here in the Pacific Southwest, as well as across the country,” EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator Martha Guzman said in a press release. “These rebates will fund cleaner Arizona school buses that will help protect the health of children and of the communities living and working near schools and bus routes.”
Improving Children’s Health
Hazel Chandler, an Arizona field organizer for Moms Clean Air Force, said cleaner school buses help improve children’s respiratory health.
When she was in charge of the Maricopa County Asthma Coalition in the mid-2000s, she noticed a problem.
“The school buses were idling because it’s too hot to turn them and the air conditioning doesn’t work fast enough to cool them off to be comfortable for the kids, and so they were idling them there while the children were standing watching, waiting to board the buses, and I was watching child after child have asthma attacks,” Chandler said.
She worked with school staff to keep the most at-risk children inside until it was time to board the buses.
Chandler, who has asthma herself, said she needs to carry an inhaler to be around diesel exhaust, a known human carcinogen. According to the EPA, 6.3 million kids in US schools have asthma.
But, Chandler noted, fossil fuel emissions have an impact on everyone.
“The truth is, that every one of those children’s lungs was being impacted at some level whether they had asthma or not by breathing in all that diesel fuel,” she said.
To her, the shift to cleaner school buses is an important move for future generations.
“There’s nothing more important than our children’s and our grandchildren’s health, and their future,” she said.
Marla Wilkerson is the principal of Theodore Roosevelt School in Fort Apache on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. Wilkerson said the $300,000 her school received will cover part of an electric bus that will hold 66 students—half of the rural school’s student population. While some students board, the school also serves students from the local community and students from other tribal nations.
The rest of the money, and money for the charging station, will come from the school’s budget.
Wilkerson said the school will have to wait for the bus to be made, and she expects to begin using it sometime next year.
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In addition to health benefits, Wilkerson noted the environmental impacts of going electric.
“I’m on the Apache reservation, and the Apache people are very in tune to the Earth and making sure that our resources are kept,” Wilkerson told The Copper Courier. “We are truly cognizant of maintaining a good environment, clean air, and this is one way to do that.”
It will also save the school money when it comes to fuel and maintenance.
“I spend thousands a year on repairs for it,” she said of the school’s current diesel-fueled bus.
Last year, the Cartwright School District in Maryvale bought an electric school bus with funds from a bond proposal Latina moms helped pass.
Phoenix Union High School District had four electric school buses as of last fall and announced plans to convert its 80-bus fleet to electric vehicles.
Chispa Arizona and others pushed in earlier years for Arizona to use its $57 million share from the US Department of Justice settlement with carmaker Volkswagen to replace diesel-fueled buses. The state ended up using $38 million to purchase over 300 new buses, but many of the new vehicles still used diesel.
Chandler said the action on cleaner school buses is now happening as a result of unrelenting pressure.
“It was the very loud voices, the consistent voices, across moms and dads and grandmas-led groups, as well as the voices of the health groups that were coming to the table and saying … ‘Asthma and other respiratory issues are a huge thing for our children, and they’re being harmed by many of the decisions that we’ve made,’ and this is a big step forward,” she said.