Breathing easier


Imagine this: It’s a bitter cold morning, and you woke up just a half an hour ago. You’re waiting in the freezing weather for the school bus and when it finally gets to your stop, you’re more than happy to sink into the ripped plastic seats to take a quick nap before class.

What you don’t realize is that the pollution level inside the old bus with the black smoke coming out the back could be five times higher than outside.

Given that the average Minnesota student spends an hour and a half on a school bus each day, this daily exposure to the gas and solid particles in diesel exhaust can contribute to heart disease, lung cancer and other respiratory problems such as asthma.

Project Green Fleet, a state-run ‘green’ organization based in Minneapolis, has been helping school systems and bus companies clean up health and environmental risks since 2005.

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That’s when Project Green Fleet began using government and private funds to make sure that Minnesota improved its air quality and didn’t exceed the air pollution limits set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Since then, more than 2,000 school buses – most of the older ones in use – have been retrofitted with equipment that keeps almost two tons of black particles from being released each year. Buses built since 2007 come already equipped with the pollution control equipment.

In order to make older buses spew less diesel exhaust, Project Green Fleet installs a diesel oxidation catalyst. The catalyst is a fancy muffler that burns up the diesel fuel more completely so 25 percent fewer contaminants are released into the air.

The state program also installs fuel-operated heaters in older buses. The heaters use a trickle of diesel to heat the bus cabin and engine when the engine is off. This reduces idling, which saves on fuel. According to Project Green Fleet, the average bus idles more than 200 hours per year. Both pieces of equipment are provided free to the bus companies, and Project Green Fleet helps with the installation.

Nonetheless, many bus companies don’t take up the offer right away. Georgia Rubenstein, the environmental project associate at Project Green Fleet, said that bus firms are nervous about installing new equipment or believes their buses are working fine already. Also she said that a lot of bus companies can’t believe the equipment is free.

Joe Kulhanek, transportation operations manager for ISD 197, sits at the wheel of a school bus fitted with a special muffler to filter pollutants from diesel exhaust.

Joe Kulhanek, the transportation operations manager for Independent School District 197 in Mendota Heights, said that it took him nearly two years to be convinced to install the new mufflers. His district has 60 buses and only two mechanics. He worried that if the new equipment didn’t work well, it would be almost impossible to keep them all in good repair.

What gave Kulhanek the extra push was the environmental club at Henry Sibley High School. Students held a fundraiser and raised $1,000 to buy replacement filters for the new mufflers. When the filters that Project Green Fleet provided need to be replaced, the money will buy new ones.

Kulhanek has been happy with the results. “The fumes were nauseating for the drivers,” he said and, most important, the catalysts have worked well. Even so, Kulhanek isn’t sure he’ll buy the more expensive mufflers when these wear out. A diesel oxidation catalyst costs $750 compared to $250 for a conventional muffler that doesn’t filter out as many pollutants, Kulhanek said. Depending on his budget, he may opt for the less expensive one.

Project Green Fleet has installed the new mufflers on most older school buses in the state and is trying to engage the remaining districts before the project ends. This summer they will sponsor a “Don’t Miss the Bus” tour for districts that still haven’t made the switch. Their next plan is to work with the light rail system in Minneapolis, and make sure that their construction equipment is safe for the environment.

For Rubenstein, this has been as much of a learning experience as a helping experience. She never imagined working with school buses, but this project has expanded her awareness on the different types of buses and of air pollution. Now when she is outside and sees a bus go by, she can usually tell the model and what sort of engine it has.