Allegheny County students soon will be breathing easier under a county grant program to help make school buses puff less diesel-fuel pollution.
The Allegheny County Health Department voted unanimously yesterday to allocate $500,000 from its Clean Air Fund to help school districts retrofit buses with filters that reduce diesel particulates by as much as 90 percent.
With 1,800 diesel-powered school buses in the county lacking filters, that can cost from $1,000 to $8,000 each, the $500,000 will fall short of solving the problem.
But environmental advocates supporting the grant program said it will reduce dangerous diesel pollution and help educate school officials about technology that protects student health.
"This isn't going to solve the problem for every school bus in the county by any means, but some school districts will be encouraged to put in their own money," said Myron Arnowitt, Western Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action. "The cost of making buses clean for kids is very small compared with the cost of getting kids to school."
The $500,000 from the Clean Air Fund comes from fines the Health Department assesses against air polluters countywide, so no tax dollars will be used.
Once the department establishes a protocol, school districts can apply for a matching grant that will provide $3 per dollar from the district. Districts meeting low-income guidelines can get grants requiring no matching funds.
The department figures school districts won't adopt programs to retrofit buses with filters until next year when project funding can be included in district budgets, said Tom Forgrave, the department's public health information coordinator.
The Penn Hills, Plum and North Allegheny school districts already have retrofitted buses with diesel particulate filters, said Rachel Filippini, executive director of Group Against Smog and Pollution. She said Deer Lakes has made plans to retrofit buses.
Health department grant money will serve as seed money to encourage private foundations and public agencies to provide additional funding to retrofit buses, she said.
Under Clean Air Act regulations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will require that ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel be sold exclusively by Oct. 15. Diesel vehicles for model year 2007 also must be fitted with diesel-fuel filters.
In time, as new buses replace old ones, diesel pollution will decline. But Mr. Arnowitt and Ms. Filippini said diesel-powered buses last a long time, so older buses must be retrofitted with filters as soon as possible.
Ms. Filippini said she expects most school buses in the county to be retrofitted with filters by 2011.
"Diesel fuel emissions affect children's health on a daily basis," she said. "Whether they are riding on the bus, waiting for the bus or playing in the playground, it causes poor health in children, especially respiratory problems."
In due time, she said, environmental agencies will begin focusing on reducing emissions in diesel-powered transit buses, trucks, marine craft and trains. But health department funding provides "an excellent start," Ms. Filippini said.
"It's enough to make a difference and to get the ball rolling," she said. "It's an exciting amount."
David Templeton can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1578.