Episode 62 Transcript: School Bus Idling
CLARICE: Hello, everybody. Welcome to this week’s episode of Environmentally Speaking.
MARISA: Hi, everyone. I’m Marisa Desautel, an environmental attorney in Rhode Island and surrounding areas.
CLARICE: And I’m Clarice. I’m coming in with our questions, comments, topics, and overall color.
MARISA: We are feeling a little giggly and sounding a little giggly today because we’re giggly.
CLARICE: It’s the afternoon. We always record in the morning.
MARISA: It’s true. I mentioned to Clarice right when we hopped on here because we’re buddies besides doing this podcast together, but I mentioned to Clarice that I was watching the news recently and was stricken by how much that I think she resembles a local meteorologist named Michelle Muscatello who is a beautiful woman. She’s ripped. She’s jacked. She’s in great shape. She’s always on point with her delivery. She’s got black hair, brown eyes, beautiful. And so of course Clarice goes online and finds the worst picture of her and so now I feel like a complete jerk.
CLARICE: Poor Michelle. I mean, you can’t Google her name and that’s like the first thing that comes up. I don’t know why Google decided that that first picture was the picture, but she is much more beautiful than that picture. So, Michelle, if you listen – I don’t know if you do. You probably don’t.
MARISA: You are her twin.
MARISA: And for the record, people tell me I look like Melissa Joan Hart —
CLARICE: Melissa Joan Hart, which I think is kind of true.
MARISA: — from Sabrina the Teenage Witch. All right. So that’s why we’re giggly. Apologies up front. Please Google both of those people. And what are we talking about today?
CLARICE: We are talking about something that is also a little giggly. We are talking about how the EPA takes action to hold school bus idling violators accountable which if you’ve listened to this podcast in the past, which I’m sure you have because you’re here — good to see you again – we constantly rag on the EPA for lack of action –
CLARICE: — lack of enforcement, lack of full stop. So the fact that the EPA has decided to take action against school bus idling.
CLARICE: Walk me through this. What’s going on?
MARISA: Okay. So let me start by saying that I don’t have children, so I look at school buses in a certain light that perhaps other folks do not. I’m always perplexed at the inconvenience that school buses provide when I’m trying to get to court on time or trying to get anywhere, so when I saw this headline I chuckled because I think it’s funny that school buses are such a bane of existence apparently between me and the EPA. But the reason that other folks might find it funny, not haha but funny ironic, is of all of the industrial sources of hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act I don’t know that anyone was really looking at school buses. Were you?
[0:03:29] CLARICE: No. No. School buses didn’t cross my mind. And I think specifically school buses didn’t cross my mind because they’re just so ingrained in life and they’re such a fundamental part of existence. Like I don’t think about the school bus because it’s existed before me. It serves a functional purpose. It’s going to keep existing in some fashion after me. I don’t know. It’s like the fact that the sky is blue, it just is there. I don’t think of school buses.
MARISA: Agree. Let’s get specific here. In terms of them just existing, apparently the enforcement news that we’re talking about has come out of the state of Massachusetts. In particular there are, I think, four locations that the EPA alleged were host to two different companies continually violating state and federal clean air standards. When you see a school bus, it’s either underway, in your way, or it’s picking kids up. I mean, those are the kind of the two purposes for a school bus. But apparently these school buses are also, according to the EPA as alleged, excessively idling. What does that mean to you?
CLARICE: Absolutely nothing. Absolutely nothing. What does excessive idling mean? Doesn’t the school bus need to be there and waiting for the children?
MARISA: Yes. Okay. In Fall of 2021 EPA inspectors observed a couple of school buses idling for extended periods of time in school bus lots. Those two locations were in Shrewsbury and Webster, Massachusetts. During four separate inspections EPA also observed approximately 48 buses idling resulting in a total idling time of 407 minutes in excess of the five-minute Massachusetts anti-idling limit. So Massachusetts has a five-minute anti-idling rule, meaning, if you’re a school bus you can’t sit there for more than five minutes. You either have to turn your engine off or move the bus. Excessive idling, more than five minutes.
[0:06:14] CLARICE: That doesn’t feel excessive. It takes me five minutes just to find my other shoe. How are you going to get a bunch of small children onto a bus in five minutes. I guess they have to stop, but then aren’t you going to have congestion because all of the buses are now stopped?
MARISA: And don’t they get cold? It’s New England.
CLARICE: Yeah. I don’t know. Okay. So 407 minutes –
MARISA: Okay. So those were –
CLARICE: — does feel like a long time.
MARISA: — in excess —
CLARICE: But is that cumulative?
MARISA: — in excess of the five-minute rule. So they were idling for 400 and – oh, crud. I got to do math – 412 minutes total and there were 48 buses doing it.
CLARICE: Okay. But wait a minute. So here’s my follow-up. Is that cumulative minutes? Is that all 48 buses make the 412 minutes, or is each bus idling for basically hours?
MARISA: In my experience state agencies use multipliers in cases like this, so without looking at the actual enforcement reports I’m making an educated guess here that there were 48 buses that individually added up to 407 minutes in excess. So it’s not that every bus was idling for 407 minutes. Maybe this bus was 15 minutes, this bus was an hour, this bus was 12 minutes. I mean, that’s 48 buses, so it’s probably not that much time, but it’s, like you said, the cumulative or conglomerate amount of time.
So that was 2001 and then in early 2002 the plot thickens. An EPA inspector observed school buses idling for extended periods of time in Sharon and Natick. During three separate inspections they observed approximately 35 buses idling resulting in a total idling time of 360 minutes in excess of the five-minute rule. So you’ve got four different observation times in four different communities. What happens?
CLARICE: Tell me.
MARISA: The state will issue or in this case has already issued an enforcement action and as part of that process anyone receiving the notice of enforcement action has an opportunity to appeal it. In this case it looks like the bus companies appealed the notices of violation or the notices of enforcement and came to an enforcement arrangement or agreement with the EPA to implement anti-idling programs and, of course, they’re have to pay some penalties under the federal Clean Air Act.
Just so I’m clear because I think I might have confused the two, this isn’t an EPA situation. That is the federal government coming in and taking action, not the state of Massachusetts. So if I referenced the state, I apologize. This is the federal government taking action against four municipalities in Massachusetts. But still you’ve got that right of appeal. You’ve got an opportunity to settle and it looks like that’s what they’re doing in this case.
[0:10:00] CLARICE: I have so many thoughts and this is a time that I’m so grateful to podcast because I am making so many faces. The article that you had sent me talked a little bit more about the penalty fees.
MARISA: Oh, let’s hear it.
CLARICE: One company is being fined with a $23,587 penalty. Another company – and I’m specifically not naming these companies –
MARISA: Yeah. Me either.
CLARICE: — because they’re going to the appeal process.
MARISA: That’s right. That’s right.
CLARICE: And, frankly, it’s not my business to put them on blast. Another company is being charged with a $28,500 penalty. Together they’re being charged with over $50,000 for idling buses. I need to take a deep breath. Marisa, where does that money go?
MARISA: I was going to say this is the most animated I’ve ever seen you.
CLARICE: I’m enraged. I’m enraged for a thousand reasons. Where does the money go?
MARISA: Isn’t that the question that everyone asks while filing their tax returns. Where does the money go, Clarice?
CLARICE: I don’t know.
MARISA: Does the article that you that it’s been specially earmarked for Clean Air Act programs?
MARISA: All right. Well, I can tell you that if money from penalties in an enforcement case are not specifically earmarked to a restricted receipt account in the government’s coffers it goes into the government’s general fund and you can imagine what happens after that.
CLARICE: I almost threw something.
MARISA: All right.
CLARICE: So here’s why I’m all like tizzied up. It’s an idling bus. And, yes, the article does make a good point about the excess fumes potentially being dangerous for children. We don’t want children in danger. Everybody can agree to that. If there’s a kid with asthma and this bus has been idling for 40 minutes, that’s not great for the kid. I don’t want them in that situation.
But the EPA who clerically does not take action on blatantly obvious events until they’re on fire have decided to spend money and resources to put individuals into bus ports to, you know, maybe with their little ticker tapes and their stop watches time buses, charge those buses money, make those companies spend extra money and effort to implement anti-idling plans. And what for? Nobody is talking about the alternatives to these big diesel buses making kids sick. Like not a single person has said, hey, let’s put high bucks towards researching hybrid buses.
[0:13:10] MARISA: Well, wait a second. Wait a second. From a policy perspective that is probably – pardon my pun – a driving factor behind why these enforcement actions were issued. It could be that the federal government is interested in pushing its own renewable energy agenda as we’ve seen with offshore wind and has found a way to do it in the public spotlight in a context where people aren’t going to be so upset because it’s our children. So why not take an opportunity to send someone out there with ticker tape and a stopwatch and issue a hefty penalty to get school bus company owners to start looking at hybrid buses.
CLARICE: I hope that’s what comes out of this. I truly hope that that’s the message behind this and the goal, but it very much feels like – have you ever gone in for an X-ray?
MARISA: Oh, yes.
CLARICE: You know how they put that lead apron on you, but everybody else gets the hell out of the room?
CLARICE: It feels like that. It feels like they’re just going to give you a lead apron and everyone’s like, this is a bad idea. And then you hear the camera start ticking. That’s what this feels like except at the end [inaudible].
MARISA: Yeah. In the general fund. This is a good one. I didn’t know you’d get this fired up. Is it the time of day that we’re recording because we should do this more often?
CLARICE: Folks, I have had two coffees and when I read this article before coffee one I was like, yeah, okay, this could be interesting. And now that I’m hearing it a second time I – five minutes idle, this feels very inefficient. I’m sorry, folks. You might need to turn down your volumes.
MARISA: I’m so happy right now. Thank you. This is a good topic.
CLARICE: Okay. New podcast episode, we go to Newton or Sharon and we watch this new idle practice in work. I want to know how long these poor little kiddos are stuck out in the cold waiting for their buses and I want to breathe in the diesel air to see how bad it is.
MARISA: How bad it is, yeah.
CLARICE: But once again, I do not want children near polluted air. I need to make that very clear.
MARISA: No. Of course not. Yes. Yes.
CLARICE: It’s not okay.
MARISA: Lest anyone think that we hate children, we love children. They are our future. They’re the reason that I fight for the planet as hard as I do.
CLARICE: I just want them [inaudible].
MARISA: But this is kind of a ridiculous story.
[0:16:07] CLARICE: This is $50,000 of ridiculousness.
MARISA: All right.
CLARICE: I’m going to go take a walk. On that note –
MARISA: And now is a good time because it’s before the school buses are going to be idling. All right. Where can we be reached?
CLARICE: We can be reached on the social medias at Desautel Law. You can hit us up on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Our videos are on YouTube. If you want to reach out to us directly via e-mail, it’s Help@DesautelESQ. If you think we look like a celebrity, I want to know. I think that will be funny.
MARISA: Michelle Muscatello.
CLARICE: If you have a celebrity twin, let us know. And does anybody have any gut reactions to the bus thing? Am I being dramatic? I need either validation or dramatic correction, so write in. Tell us.
MARISA: Thanks, everybody.
CLARICE: Have a good one.