Credit: John Walker / The Fresno Bee

This story originally published on on April 28, 2022.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District launched a $30 million program to subsidize the cost of electric schoolbuses at its April 21 meeting.

The funds will help replace the Valley’s aging school bus fleet, which is, on average, significantly older than school buses in other California regions, according to Todd DeYoung, district director of strategies and incentives.

The program will help disadvantaged Valley school districts buy up to 10 electric school buses, build out charging infrastructure, and send old diesel-engine buses to the scrap yard.

“Replacing the Valley’s aging school bus fleet to minimize the impact on children residents has been a high priority for Valley communities for years,” DeYoung said, crediting Assembly Bill 617 community steering committees across the Valley for making bus replacements a high priority for the air district.

He added that retiring the oldest buses will provide benefits to student health. The older school bus models can leak toxic diesel tailpipe pollution into the cabin where kids sit.

The potentially hazardous school buses make up 16% of the school bus fleet for 11 rural school districts in Fresno County, said Shelly Thomas, director of transportation at Southwest Transportation Agency.

DeYoung also said the Valley’s existing electric bus program, funded by Volkswagen’s $2.9 billion settlement for the diesel exhaust scandal five years ago, is “significantly oversubscribed.” He said the new funding will help alleviate the pent-up demand for the clean-air tech from Valley school districts.

“Anecdotally, it is said that the San Joaquin Valley is where old school buses go to die,” said DeYoung.

Samir Sheikh, executive director of the air district, said he hopes the district’s clean bus funds will prepare transportation planning experts across the Valley for federal and state funds for clean buses that are coming down the pike.

“Building off the Volkswagen work…this will keep the process moving forward. We’ll get a lot of demand,” Sheikh said. “We hope, with this, it’ll help get (school) districts here in the Valley ready for some of the new state and federal funds.”

Air District Moves To Improve Public Health Advisories

The air district also moved to establish a working group, consisting of public health experts and local education leaders, to overhaul its public safety advisory program, outdoor activity guidelines, and air quality monitoring databases.

A Fresno Bee essay last November said that during last fall’s wildfire season, some Valley school districts allowed athletic events to continue through the smoke’s most harmful impacts, and the air district’s pollution monitoring network could not keep up with the rapidly changing air quality impacts from the smoke’s drifting plumes.

Shiekh said the air district’s public health advisory guidelines “could change, based on the latest health research” about the toxic effects of PM2.5 pollution, and that the district will work with the state to establish comprehensive outdoor activity guidelines when wildfire smoke pollutes the air.

“There could be more opportunities to take advantage of what’s out there, establish better practices…and make some differences with what we’re doing here,” said John Klassen, director of air quality science for the district.

Klassen said that leveraging public air monitoring networks, which utilize low-cost air pollution sensors, could improve the district’s pollution monitoring coverage.

“This provides a lot more information to look at when we have wildfire events,” Klassen said, citing websites like EPA’s AirNow and Purple Air.

Tim Tyner, co-director of the Central California Asthma Collective, said the highly precise Purple Air monitors can be algorithmically calibrated to inform the public with accurate, real-time air quality information.

Leveraging the Purple Air data would significantly improve the coverage of the air district’s current PM2.5 monitoring network, a Fresnoland/Bee analysis found. The air district’s current program relies on data from 23 PM2.5 sensors spread across the Valley, according to air district records. In comparison, Purple Air has 195 sensors operating in the San Joaquin Valley.

Cynthia Cabrera, a policy assistant at Central Valley Air Coalition, urged the air district to improve its air quality notification and advisory programs in the Valley’s fight to avoid all unnecessary exposures to wildfire smoke, adding that the air watchdog programs are needed “to support the health and well-being of Valley residents.”

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Gregory Weaver is a staff writer for Fresnoland who covers the environment, air quality, and development.

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