Air freshener: Federal program funds clean-air initiatives for diesel vehicles

It’s 7 a.m. and you’re stuck behind a school bus sputtering enough diesel exhaust to make you cough. These fumes are wrought with microscopic soot known as particulate matter (PM), as well as toxins like nitrous oxide (NOx). A component of smog, PM can line the lungs and contribute to serious respiratory and heart problems, especially for children, the elderly and those with allergies or asthma. NOx fumes contribute to ground-level ozone, too, and lead to lung cancer.

In short, these emissions can kill.

But next year, a proposed 70 percent cut to the federal budget for the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) could trickle down to local programs that aim to clear the air. Fortunately, several Buncombe County programs are addressing the problem — even on a shoestring budget.

“I work out of a state budget, mostly, with very little local monies,” says Joe Hough, transportation director for Buncombe County Schools.

In 2002, the school system received a $75,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to retrofit its diesel fleet. Hough says the money allowed 288 buses to get exhaust recirculation valves, which reduce emissions by burning gas a second time. The Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency (WNCRAQA) expanded the program after getting another EPA grant — for $274,455 — for putting new valves on school buses in Haywood, Madison and Transylvania counties.

“These devices are pretty effective in helping to reduce that particular matter, and that’s really good for school kids who have asthma and lungs that are developing,” adds Bill Eaker, coordinator of the Land-of-Sky Regional Council’s Clean Vehicles Coalition.

He notes that five years after Buncombe County launched the retrofit initiative, newer buses and other vehicles don’t need the valves.

But many school systems still rely on older diesel-spewing buses, as do other public fleets, including fire engines and garbage trucks. “Diesel engines have long lifetimes and could be on the road for 20 years. The ones built before 2007 can really benefit [from retrofits],” says Ashley Featherstone, WNCRAQA engineering supervisor.

Almost three years ago, $31,500 in DERA-funded grants from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and N.C. Division of Air Quality paid for retrofitting Asheville’s fire engines, according to the city of Asheville’s blog. The money was used to attach diesel oxidation catalysts that burn up extra particulate matter before passing through the muffler, says Eaker.

The Clean Vehicles Coalition, he adds, uses both DERA and pre-DERA funds for various projects, such as replacing trash trucks and street sweepers with vehicles that run on natural gas or biodiesel (both of the latter burn cleaner than diesel).

Since DERA’s creation, particulate matter and NOx levels have dropped by 98 percent, compared to levels found in 1988, says Allen Schaeffer, executive director of Diesel Technology Forum.

In Asheville, a mix of federal, state and local initiatives have helped the metro area reduce ozone and smog.

For example, the North Carolina Green Schools program tackles the issue from another angle — education. The program “gives [schools] a whole-systems view” for environmental initiatives, such as retrofitting buses or testing air quality in classrooms, says Executive Director Robin Cape. The program does not provide funding, she explains, but offers a framework for what schools should be doing to be greener, how it can be done and what resources can help.

Although DERA grants could total $9 million nationwide this year, the proposed 70 percent cut “would be a blow to our clean vehicle efforts if DERA lost most of its funding,” says Eaker.

Meanwhile, agencies are able to use state funding for future projects, though DERA cuts could reduce what’s available, he explains. Nonetheless, Buncombe County has proved that it can do its part in reducing emissions. But the fight for cleaner air and less emissions does not happen at the state level, says Eaker.

“If anyone is interested in learning more about diesel-emission programs and reducing emissions from their own fleet and reducing their own petroleum, they should give us a call to discuss that,” he says. “We’d be glad to discuss options, what’s feasible for them, and whether there’d be any grant money for them. We’re about helping … others green their fleets.”

For more information, contact Eaker at 251-6622 or

— Brandy Carl is an Xpress news intern and a senior at Western Carolina University. She can be reached at or 251-1333, ext. 128.


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