In fight for cleaner air, feds target the big yellow school bus

Biden administration has made $400 million available to school districts to swap diesel buses for cleaner ones

Since taking office in 2021, President Biden has taken an aggressive approach to reduce harmful air pollution by proposing tighter limits on particle pollutants, tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks, and more.

Now, in its quest to clean up the air we breathe and to protect kids — who are most vulnerable to air pollution — the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is targeting the vehicles that ferry an estimated 25 million children in the U.S. to and from school each day: diesel school buses.

On Wednesday, EPA Region 4 Administrator Daniel Blackman joined Clayton County officials to announce the availability of $400 million in federal funds for school districts seeking to swap noisy, polluting diesel buses for cleaner options. The money is part of a $5 billion pot allocated for cleaner school buses by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021.

The announcement was made at the Michelle Obama STEM Elementary Academy in Hampton.

“This is the transportation that is utilized by our children to commute to and from school every day,” said Caroline Freeman, the director of EPA Region 4′s Air and Radiation Division. “Imagine if they no longer have to breathe diesel emissions. That’s huge.”

According to the EPA, diesel exhaust exposure is linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses, especially in children and the elderly. It also contributes to ground-level ozone, which can be a major hazard on Georgia’s hot summer days and has been tied to a host of serious health conditions.

In Georgia — where at least 9% of children have asthma — the health benefits of taking diesel buses off the road could be significant, especially in places like Clayton County. According to Lux Ho, a field coordinator at Moms Clean Air Force, Clayton County has the fifth-most childhood asthma cases in the state.

“Cutting harmful diesel emissions through electric school buses can improve the health outcomes of communities burdened with high levels of traffic pollution and high rates of childhood asthma like Clayton County,” Ho said.

Blackman said the buses will also reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases that are causing climate change. Over a 15-year lifetime, the EPA expects each electric school bus will keep roughly 375 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Electric school buses are already on the way to several Georgia school districts, including Clayton County, through a separate federally funded rebate program.

Last year, 14 Georgia school districts were selected to receive more than $50 million to replace diesel buses with electric and propane or compressed natural gas-fueled ones, which generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants than buses that burn diesel.

From that funding, which also came from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Clayton County is set to receive nearly $10 million to purchase 25 electric school buses. The county is buying a mix of models, including some built by Georgia-based manufacturer Blue Bird, along with others made by Thomas Built Buses and IC Bus.

Clayton County officials said Wednesday they plan to apply for some of the $400 million in grants the EPA announced, and Blackman strongly encouraged other school districts to apply, too.

The agency’s grant application window opened on April 24 and will run through August 22. The EPA expects to notify award recipients later this year or in early 2024.

A note of disclosure

This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at