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Diesel school buses falling out of favor, focus shifts to children's health

Posted at 7:22 AM, Aug 26, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-29 08:08:58-04

(WXYZ) — School buses. You’ve heard them, you’ve smelled them, too, but it’s less likely that you’ve questioned how safe they are for your children.

For years, schools have relied on diesel powered school buses that belch exhaust and ship kids to and from school. We’re starting to see a shift away from the antiquated diesel-powered buses. Nationally, there is a discussion about electric buses, but with steep infrastructure costs, more and more districts are running propane-powered buses to cut down on costs while putting out fewer toxins.

“They burn a lot cleaner,” said Brian Flaggs, with ABC Student Transportation. “The kids already suffer disproportionately for asthma and environmental hazards.”

Flaggs' fleet is roughly 95-percent propane; only a few legacy diesel-powered buses remain. He switched to propane for cost-savings. Those in the propane, or auto-gas business, note the low-cost of propane-powered vehicles as you drive more miles — fleet vehicles tend to get the best cash return. And while the cost drives sales, the science is what’s piquing interest of many others.

Georgia State University published a study that shows that students who breathe in less diesel toxins score better on tests.

The folks at Propane Education and Research Council say that if all diesel buses in Michigan were swapped out tomorrow, emissions would drop in our state by 244,000 pounds when it comes to nitrogen oxide, one of the more harmful emissions that can lead to asthma and other respiratory infections developing.

“It’s pretty cool seeing it start as a concept, and now it’s a reality,” said Todd Mouw, President of Roush Clean Tech.

Roush has been working to develop engines for Blue Bird, one of the most well-known names in the school bus industry. Roush Clean Tech, based in Livonia, is helping grow the propane bus industry. Once considered a niche, it’s now 10 percent of the industry. Roughly 1 million school children are taken to school on a propane-powered bus.

“We’re reducing the emissions with this fuel in our engines, what kids are used to with diesel,” said Mouw. “It’s quiet. It’s cleaner, and obviously at the end of the day, we’re putting a lot of money back in the classroom, which is powerful.”

In Michigan, roughly 40 school districts are using propane school buses. The largest district is Detroit Public Schools, which relies on ABC Student Transportation for buses. Waterford invested in propane in 2016, and a handful of other metro Detroit school districts have bought buses to test.

Costs, in some instances, can be deferred as the state has made grants available for alternative fuel buses — money that became available as part of the Volkswagen diesel emission scam. Michigan is distributing more than $60 million to reduce air pollution thanks to settlement funds, a big chunk of that money will go toward replacing aging, polluting diesel school buses.

While electric buses are becoming more popular in other states, Flaggs told 7 Action News that the cost is still prohibitive in some circumstances due to the infrastructure needs. Whether electric buses could eventually overtake the growing propane-powered industry is yet to be seen — however, it appears more apparent that traditional diesel powered vehicles are falling out of favor.