By Kristine Galloway
Three years ago, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) dedicated itself to improving student safety statewide.
The DEQ created the School Bus Replacement Program in 2016 and has helped replace 92 buses in Wyoming’s school districts with about $2.1 million in grant money.
That money comes partially from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) through the Diesel Emission Reduction Act (DERA) and partially from matching funds from the 2016 Volkswagen Settlement.
Brian Hall, DEQ’s Outreach Program manager, operates the School Bus Replacement Program, which is part of the agency’s Emissions Reduction Program. He explained that the program replaces school buses with old diesel engines that no longer meet the diesel emission requirements set by the EPA.
Districts pay for the new buses, and DEQ reimburses 25 percent of the cost. Ultimately, the Wyoming Department of Education will reimburse the remaining 75 percent of the cost through the Wyoming School Foundation Program.
“DEQ’s Emissions Reduction Program benefits citizens in Wyoming by reducing air pollution statewide,” Hall said.
The benefits of the School Bus Replacement Program affect one of the state’s most vulnerable populations – the kids.
Hall said, “New diesel engines must meet the latest emissions standards, which means students are exposed to less pollution, especially at loading and unloading zones.”
Donna Bath, transportation director for Goshen County School District 1, said her district received a new diesel bus in 2019 to replace an activity bus.
“We have a lot of children nowadays who have asthma. With those diesel fumes – with the windows down – those diesel fumes do get into the bus,” she said.
Bath added that she thinks parents will be relieved that new buses are much cleaner for the students.
Each new diesel bus releases about 92.8 percent less nitrous oxides (NOx) into the air than the old diesel buses.
Natrona County School District received 11 new diesel buses in 2019.
Sydney Webb, the district’s transportation director, said that’s about 10 percent of the district’s entire fleet.
“We were quite happy – even though it was additional paperwork – to participate,” he said.
“We want to make sure that Natrona County is trying to lead the way for replacing our buses through whatever funding is available out there.”
Webb said he has concerns about older buses – not just that they don’t meet emissions standards, but that they could break down more, which makes him nervous considering the long miles Wyoming school buses travel.
“These are the concerns that keep me up at night. If we can replace these buses as quickly as possible and they meet the state guidelines, I’m all for that,” he said.
Webb added that the new diesel buses break down less often, which also saves the district money on maintenance.
Dennis Zezas, transportation director for Johnson County School District 1, said his district has received 11 new buses through the School Bus Replacement Program. He added that he estimates the district has saved $65,000 in repairs that would have been required to the older buses.
Webb said Natrona County School District will continue to utilize the School Bus Replacement Program to replace as many buses as possible with DEQ grants.
“Every district owes it to themselves to look at this DERA money and put in a request to replace their buses through it. We should be fiscally responsible. We need to request it whether we’re grant it or not,” he said.
Keith Chrans, transportation director for Campbell County School District 1, said applying for a grant through the School Bus Replacement Program was easier than people might expect.
“A lot of times when grants are created, they become so cumbersome that (district employees) don’t want to go through the effort,” he said.
But he explained that this process wasn’t like that at all.
“It was very easy to apply and very easy to do the recordkeeping and receive all the required documents. Our state made it as easy they possibly could to do this,” Chrans said.
Once old diesel buses are replaced, they are removed from rotation by punching holes in the engines and cutting the rails under the buses.
Bath explained that those precautions must be taken so no one can use the bus or engine again because it no longer meets the EPA’s emission standards.
The new buses also have improved safety features, and many of the buses districts are received come fully equipped with seatbelts. State law requires that all passengers wear seatbelts in vehicles equipped with them, so students riding in the new buses all will be required to be strapped in at all times.
Hall said, “Ultimately, the benefit is to the children in the state. That’s what makes this work really rewarding.”