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A Brand New Day

It’s good to be ahead of the curve, especially considering from where Marianne Cleary began. She was anxious about her first grant-writing experience as transportation coordinator for North Penn School District in suburban Philadelphia, and her attempt to secure funding to assist in a fleetwide switch to ultra low sulfur diesel fuel — well ahead of an EPA Clean Air Act mandate for end-users in 2007 — and to retrofit older buses with emission reduction technology.

“The task of writing a grant and going and getting the money is just so daunting,” she said, especially since North Penn does not retain a full-time staff grant writer. “Nobody makes it easy.”

Nobody in her case but the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which helped her secure nearly $140,000 in the spring of 2004 to retrofit 35 school buses with diesel oxidation catalysts provided by Donaldson Solutions. The retrofits together with the switch to ULSD in all 143 buses amounted to a total fleet emissions reduction of 47 percent, for which North Penn was recently recognized.

North Penn became the fifth recipient — the second school district with Wissahickon School District in Ambler being the first — of Philadelphia Diesel Difference’s “Platinum Recognition” award ceremony during the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission’s 2006 Ozone Season Kick-Off and Clean Air Fair event on May 12. The school district transports approximately 11,000 of the 13,500 total enrollment each school day over a 43 square-mile area, and it racks up about 1.8 million miles annually.

A Philadelphia Diesel Difference spokesman Eric Cheung said North Penn’s efforts actually resulted in a 64 percent emissions reduction when older, retrofit-ineligible buses were thrown out of the calculations because they will soon be replaced.“It’s a shame from my perspective that more school districts didn’t take advantage of all the grant money out there the last couple of years,” Cleary said.

She attributed that to the feeling of many school districts, especially the smaller ones, of not knowing where to turn for assistance. The Pennsylvania DEP stepped right up to lend a hand.

“Marianne was a model grantee,” said Chris Trostle, a DEP air quality program specialist. “She had good lines of communication and let us know of problems right away.”

At issue for North Penn was engine stalls resulting from usage of ULSD that left the school district, and DEP, perplexed. North Penn was hemorrhaging funds as it tried to identify and fix problems the new fuel was causing in existing Bosch and General Motors fuel pumps with degraded O-rings used in some of the older buses.

Trostle said North Penn had no way to forecast the problems it would have until fueling up with the ULSD only to see it pour right back out. The ULSD was acting as a cleaning effect in the engine that was destroying the fuel lift pump.

“The thing we’re always concerned about is having school buses stranded out on the highway somewhere,” Trostle added.

He said his office had seen similar issues arise in some diesel particulate filter retrofit projects that would de-rate the engines and the vehicles would “limp home.” But DEP had never seen the problem specific to ULSD. His office contacted the U.S. EPA to notify them of the problem.

“The purposed of these demo programs is to obviously demonstrate the new technology so we can learn from it,” he said. “(The EPA was) right on top of it.”Meanwhile, another potential grantee couldn’t get the paperwork signed on time for a $19,000 made available under a settlement agreement with the EPA and a local power company. So Trostle’s team ran the funds through the DEP’s legal department for approval to disburse to Cleary. The petition was successful.

The additional funds enabled North Penn to switch out the affected fuel pumps and, months before a federal mandate kicked in for petroleum manufacturers to begin producing ultra low sulfur diesel at 80 percent levels of all diesel supplied nationwide by all refiners and importers, the school district suddenly found itself a trend setter. “It was really seamless transition other than the bump at the beginning with the fuel pumps,” Cleary said.

She advocated more school bus industry assistance via free workshops that assist pupil transporters on the ins and outs of grant writing.

“It’s a great idea because we’re not in that business; we’re transportation professionals,” she said. “If you can just walk people through the process and let them know the resources are out there … I could have never done this with out the help of the people at DEP. They wanted to give the money.”

Added Trostle: “The hardest part for grant writers is to write technically about school buses. Now they are required to also write about air quality. It’s an area that is not reasonable to expect them to do that.”

Reprinted from the July 2006 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.

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