By Dorothy Wigmore
Plug and go! Electric buses are coming to New Jersey schools.
It’s part of an international movement to take diesel vehicles off the road, following campaigns by organizations focused on the climate emergency, environmental justice and job-related hazards.
In New Jersey, it became the law in August.
S-1282 requires the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to establish the Electric School Bus Program by Feb. 4, 2023. The pilot will provide $15 million a year for three years (subject to funding) to at least 18 districts. The money will help lease or buy electric buses and their charging stations. Other provisions include minimum bus range requirements, “telematics monitoring systems” on each bus, reporting processes and worker training.
In the competitive process, at least half the grants must go to school districts rather than private companies. Each year, at least half the school districts or contractors must be from, and half the funds must go to, low-income, urban, or environmental justice communities. Geographic equity is a related goal.
This program adds to the growing funding sources for electric school buses. For example, 2022 federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean School Bus Program rebates went to the Atlantic County Special Services School District ($1,525,000) and the Bridgeton City School District ($790,000). Another 47 school districts are on a waiting list, after requesting a total of $61,410,000 for 14 propane and 216 electric buses.
There are 10,000 diesel powered school buses in the state. School districts need the financial aid to replace them. Electric buses are much more expensive now than diesel versions, although data shows long-term savings and greater benefits.
Why go electric?
Studies show that children’s health is affected by diesel exhaust from school buses. While still-developing bodies make them more vulnerable to harm from diesel exhaust, bus driver harm is often neglected.
Other investigations show that inhaling diesel exhaust’s complex mixture of airborne particles (aerosols), gases and vapors can lead to short-term eye and respiratory irritation, asthma, and lung and bladder cancers.
It also is a major contributor to air pollution. Currently, that pollution is linked to increased rates of asthma, cancer, strokes, reproductive and heart problems, allergies and more. It also can make climate change worse. The transportation sector accounts for more than 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in New Jersey.
The state’s three-minute idling law is not enough.
“Getting diesel buses off of the roads is good for the environment,” says Drew Tompkins, director of Advocacy and Policy for New Jersey Work Environment Council (NJWEC), one of 30-plus organizations that supported the bill.
“It’s good for public health—for the children riding buses, the drivers, and communities where the buses travel, especially really dense areas, many of them environmental justice hotspots—already burdened by air pollution,” he adds.
Electric buses also are quieter, with lower maintenance and operation costs, making up for up-front costs over time, and they produce fewer greenhouse gases. V2G ones can feed power back into the grid when they are not being used and electricity demand is high.
What electric buses mean for members
Chrissy Kosar has questions about electric buses. President of the Gloucester County Education Association, she’s been a Washington Township bus driver for 17 years.
“We don’t have any information,” she says. “Members are asking questions like, ‘How far can you go on a field trip?’ ‘Where do we charge them?’ ‘What happens if you run out of electricity?’ Nobody’s particularly said, ‘I don’t think I could drive one.’”
Uncertainty like this adds to an already-stressful job. Drivers have increasing responsibilities while school districts set restrictions on working hours to limit benefits.
“You work from paycheck to paycheck. You worry that if your hours get cut, then you could lose this or that, or you could lose the house,” Kosar says.
Privatization is a constant threat, she adds. Members have concerns about this happening with electric buses.
Answers may take a while.
“While other states are investing in electric school buses, New Jersey took a three-year pilot approach to ensure the buses work well, can be used by everybody, and the cost—including maintenance—makes sense. While it’s a step in the right direction, we believe there’s enough data already and the state should be more aggressive in adopting these buses.”
Electric buses require a just transition—making sure those affected by change aren’t left behind. Groups fought for, and got, staff training and limits to funding private contractors.
Monitoring systems also are job stressors if employers use them to keep track of what bus drivers do and penalize them, rather than bus performance as intended.
Dorothy Wigmore is a consultant to the New Jersey Work Environment Council and a long-time health and safety specialist, trained in occupational hygiene, ergonomics, and “stress.” She has worked in Canada, the U.S. and Mozambique, focusing on prevention and worker participation to solve job-related hazards.
What can health and safety committees and locals do?
- Survey drivers and maintenance staff for their questions/concerns about electric buses, as well as current hazards.
- Use the results to push for changes to current and new buses and their maintenance.
- Find out the school district’s electric bus plans.
- Get involved early, pushing for a just transition and fewer hazards (e.g., do a hazard assessment of proposed purchase remembering the season makes a difference, e.g., removing roof snow).
- Do a hazard assessment of new buses and push for needed changes.
- Demand staff get effective training and relevant documents before new buses are used as the law requires.
- Negotiate monitoring system rules that assess buses, not people.
- Contribute to district’s required DEP electric bus reports.
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
Climate Justice Alliance
“Just Transition. A Framework for Change”
Environmental Protection Agency
“Awarded Clean School Bus Program Rebates” (and wait list)
“What if electric school buses could be used to supply power when off duty?”
Text of A-1282