Cleaning Houston Air and Houston School Buses

There are about 8,000 school buses in the Houston region and air quality officials say most of them pump huge amounts of pollutants into the atmosphere. There's a simple way to fix that problem but it costs money and officials are asking the corporate sector to help. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson.

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The Houston-Galveston Area Council has a Clean School Bus program. They provide grant money to retrofit old diesel engine buses with a special filter that captures the particles in the bus' exhaust system. Each retrofit costs about $6700, depending on the make and age of the bus. So El Paso Corp. has pledged $50,000 as grant money for school districts and CEO Doug Foshee says they're challenging other corporations to do the same.

"You hear about all of these sort of more grandiose issues around greenhouse gas and air quality. This is something that's very practical. For a matter of a few thousand dollars, you can change the lives of children riding a bus. And that makes it, seems to me, much more practical and accessible to a lot of people."

The H-GAC has already distributed funds to retrofit 400 buses in the area. Executive Director Jack Steele says Conroe Independent School District and HISD are upgrading hundreds of their buses, but that's just a small dent in the 8,000 buses creating pollution in the region.

"We know that a number of other districts are buying cleaner engines as they turn over their fleet. But I would say that the vast majority of that 8,000 still needs to get cleaner for us to have a school bus fleet that's as clean as we can possibly be."

The difference between a regular diesel-engine bus and a filtered bus is dramatic. Steele did a white-glove test and wiped down the tailpipe of two different buses. The one without a filter was covered with soot and dirt. The bus with the filter was nearly clean. The filters are proven to reduce emissions by as much as 90 percent. Larry Soward is the head of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. He says there are 36,000 school buses in Texas.

"Currently over one-third of the Texas school bus fleet is over ten years old. And these older buses emit significantly more pollution than newer models. A bus built in 1990 or earlier, emits up to 60 times more pollution than a new bus. Even buses built last year in 2006 emit up to ten times more than the newer 2007 buses do."

The Texas legislature and the TCEQ have set aside about $12 million to help schools upgrade their fleets with lower emissions technology. School districts in the Houston area have to apply for the grant money through the H-GAC. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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