Aging and potentially dangerous school buses in the Valley

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Thousands of kids in the Central Valley are exposed to dangerous chemicals every morning as they ride school buses.

Thousands of kids in the Central Valley are exposed to dangerous chemicals every morning as they ride school buses. Some are on buses that shouldn't even be on the road.
Aging and potentially dangerous school buses in the Valley

Thousands of kids in the Central Valley are exposed to dangerous chemicals every morning as they ride school buses. Some are on buses that shouldn't even be on the road. That was the big surprise in an Action News investigation: Buses illegally taking kids to school. We collected information on more than 1100 school buses in the Valley. Hundreds are giving out dangerous pollution. Many might be even more dangerous.

Less than a minute after Jason Flores turned the ignition on this 29-year-old school bus, the smell of exhaust filled the space he shared with an Action News crew.

"So just think, when it's hot, all the windows are down and it's a full busload of kids," Flores said. "They have to smell all that."

As the transportation director at the Kings Canyon Unified School District, Flores is in charge of moving nearly 10,000 kids through a rural community. And he's trying to do it without destroying air quality.

"We have our mechanics put in place to make sure you're not behind a bus that's going to blow black smoke all over your car or you're going to be breathing that," he said.

But harmful pollutants are exactly what the Central Valley is getting from many buses. Those manufactured before 1990 can send out as much as six times more particulate matter and nitrogen oxides than newer buses, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Through a series of public records requests over the course of two years, I found CHP inspection reports documenting almost 200 of the highest polluting, pre-1990 buses operating in the Valley. Among them are twelve of Kings Canyon Unified's buses.

The district is actually ahead of most, with a full complement of buses using alternative energies -- like compressed natural gas, or electricity, or a hybrid. But when it comes to modernizing bus fleets, a lot of districts are still in a fog.

Tulare Joint Union High School District runs 28 buses. Eleven of them -- about 40% -- were built before 1990. State regulations passed in 2008 require them all to be replaced in the next three years. But when Ralph Meza III took over as transportation director a couple years ago, the process hadn't even begun.

"We were behind in the ballgame in regards to updating our school buses to meet the clean air laws here in the state of California," Meza said.

Two of the district's buses, including number 15 here, haven't even been legal to drive since January 2012 because they were built before April 1977. And yet, they've both racked up thousands of miles in the last year. In fact, 14 pre-1977 buses are in Valley school fleets. Representatives from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District tell me those buses are not just unhealthy, but unsafe. The schools are risking fines, but more importantly, they're putting children at risk. New buses cost at least $160,000, but the air district is providing grants to keep the cost of updates down. Tulare Joint Union already got money to pay for two new buses.

"That's going to mean more money that stays in the classroom with the students where it belongs," Meza said.

And ultimately, the students are the main focus, even for the folks whose day-to-day work revolves more around engines and long yellow frames.

"You have to be good stewards of the environment," said bus consultant John Clements, the former KCUSD transportation director. "You have to do what you can to protect your students and ensure their health and will-being because you want them to come to school and be productive citizens."

Getting rid of all 193 of the Valley's heavy polluters could cost as much as $36 million, though. The schools say they'll need help from state legislators to make sure the kids, and the air, stay safe.

Click or tap to see how old and how many miles are on the buses carrying your kids.

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school busschoolstudentstransportationsafetyeducationcentral valley
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