MEMO

Date: April 24, 2018
From: CVNM Education Fund and Juntos: Our Air, Our Water
To: New Mexico Media
Subject: Reporter Memo: VW Mitigation Plan: Is NMED picking industry favorites?

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) released its Draft Volkswagen Beneficiary Mitigation Plan on Friday, April 13th, 2018. This draft plan outlines the state’s priority areas for how to allocate approximately $18 million towards projects that mitigate diesel pollution. The major points of the plan are as follows:

The state’s goals for the Mitigation Plan are to fund projects that repower or replace older diesel-fueled vehicles; focus on vehicles or equipment that are near areas that bear higher levels of air pollution; prioritize areas that are located in or are near air pollution nonattainment areas; and focus on projects located in areas with high population or traffic density.

Projects eligible for mitigation dollars include:

  • 70% of funds to be earmarked for on-road fleet projects, like freight trucks or school buses;
  • 7% for non-road fleet projects, like forklifts and airport ground support equipment;
  • 3% for Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) eligible projects like clean diesel;
  • 15% for light-duty zero emission vehicle supply equipment like solar charging stations;
  • And 5% for administrative fees.

This delineation allows for a majority of the funds (73%) to be used to fund alternative fuels projects – including so-called “clean diesel”  and Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) fuels – two ways of reducing nitrous dioxide emissions from a vehicle. But these are small improvements that don’t take into account the severity of the air quality issues in New Mexico, especially in disproportionately affected communities. All diesel exhaust produces emissions, regardless of the updates to the bus models and advanced technology. This is why Volkswagen was found to be cheating federal (and international) fuel emission standards. Despite years of claiming its technology made diesel “clean,” its technology merely hid diesel’s dirty emissions. Industry attempts to produce “clean diesel” technology has failed, because “clean diesel” does not exist.

It’s concerning to see the New Mexico Environment Department, the state agency in charge of ensuring our air is healthy, aim so low when it comes to reducing diesel emissions in the communities most directly affected by these emissions. Communities like the South Valley and Westgate in Albuquerque, for example, are multi-zoned communities where you’ll find school bus idle stations next to a neighborhood of homes. In fact, every school bus barn where buses begin and end the day, with only two exceptions, are located in these communities. Buses idle for hours a week at these sites. Because of these cumulative impacts, these communities are identified as Environmental Justice and High Pollution areas by NMED and are clearly laid out as priorities in the Plan. The residents of these neighborhoods are worried about high asthma rates in their families and want to see serious progress made. One in 11 children suffer from asthma in New Mexico. Simply reducing emissions slightly by using buses with a newer diesel engine isn’t good enough. A small reduction in diesel emissions can’t compete with a zero-emissions electric school bus.

We believe these funds should be re-invested in initiatives that stand to enhance the air quality of local communities and school districts, especially in communities where students and families are most at risk of breathing dirty air, and are disproportionately suffering from pollution.

Picking winners and losers?

In the draft plan, NMED argues electric school buses are not a cost-efficient use of settlement funds. There is reason to question these claims.

  1. The plan estimates the cost of a new electric bus at $350,000. During the 2018 legislative session, two memorials in support of using the Volkswagen settlement funds to transition diesel to electric buses were introduced. In their analysis for the memorials, the Legislative Study Council and Public Education Department reported electric buses costing between $225,000 and $260,000. Why did the NMED estimate a cost $100,000 to $120,000 higher than other, more familiar state agencies did not three months ago?
  2. NMED’s comparison of a “clean diesel” bus and an electric bus is blind to operating costs. An electric bus can save $11,000 in operating costs each year that it is in operation – funding New Mexico schools are desperately in need of.

    The Plan does provide an example of investing in up to four electric school buses. We encourage the state to leverage these settlement funds to buy these and more electric school buses. When they do, these buses should be deployed in the South Valley and Westgate communities, whose residents have made it clear that zero-emission electric school buses are what they want. Juntos: Our Air, Our Water has already gathered 130 public comments from community members who want to see these funds invested in electric school buses.

Summary

Zero-emission electric school buses are a high value investment and we encourage the New Mexico Environment Department to reconsider their recommendations. Electric school buses are:

  • Cleaner because they emit no tailpipe toxins or pollutants.
  • Cheaper because they have fewer parts and require fewer repairs, costing less to maintain. In addition, they do not rely on gas and reduce fuel costs by more than 40%.
  • Safer because they don’t put children’s health at risk.

We encourage the New Mexico Environment Department to embrace the national and global shift to electric vehicles. The Volkswagen Settlement Funds provide us a win-win opportunity for New Mexico to lead in this part of the clean energy revolution by allowing us to begin investing in electric school buses to protect our children from dangerous diesel emissions.

NMED’s Mitigation Plan continues the Martinez administration’s clearly anti-renewable energy stance by going out of its way to claim that zero-emission electric school buses aren’t the best use of the settlement funds. Our shared future is deeply tied to clean, renewable energy and we should have the support of NMED to make that future a reality. Several state agencies in other states have prioritized zero-emissions electric buses in their plans and many New Mexicans have made it clear that electric buses are a priority for them. CVNM Education Fund and Juntos gathered more than 2,969 petition signatures in support of utilizing this funding to transition dirty diesel school buses to zero-emissions electric. We call on the the NM Environment Department to heed the call of the public.

Lack of public input

It’s not surprising that the NMED priorities in this plan don’t reflect those of the public. Unfortunately, NMED has given the very communities impacted by dirty diesel pollution virtually no opportunity to participate in the process of shaping the plan. NMED held six public meetings around the state, two of which were held in the middle of the work day. Families whose health is most impacted by pollution have significant challenges attending in-person meetings due to work obligations, family responsibilities and inadequate public transportation.

In addition, during these meetings, there was no opportunity to submit or give formal comments to help shape the state’s plan. A presentation was given and the presenter provided vague answers regarding NMED’s timeline and plans. Volunteers with Juntos: Our Air, Our Water left the only meeting in Albuquerque feeling unheard. The NMED public meetings seem to have been designed simply to check a box rather than meaningfully engage the public.

In sharp contrast, the materials about the settlement on the NMED website are focused on engaging private companies’ interest in submitting projects or proposals for consideration for use of the funds – a classic “cart before the horse” approach.  NMED prioritize the types of proposals that they will fund – after first engaging the public in a meaningful way about its perception of need.

The public can submit formal public comment on the plan through 5pm on May 14th, 2018. Comment can be submitted via written comments through email (vw.info@state.nm.us), or mail. To mail in comments, please send them to the following address:

ATTN: Kerwin Singleton

Acting Planning Section Chief

NMED Air Quality Bureau

525 Camino de los Marquez, Suite 1

Santa Fe, NM 87505-1816

NMED will take into consideration all of the comments received, and will make any relevant revisions, and post on the final mitigation plan on the NMED Volkswagen website.

Background

Under the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency busted Volkswagen for cheating on diesel emissions standards. The resulting settlement funds are intended to reduce toxic diesel pollution.  Communities that experience the highest levels of air pollution, illness and asthma rates were to be especially targeted. This presents a clear win-win opportunity for New Mexico, a way for us to make progress toward cleaner air with funds that don’t impact our state budget.

Diesel school buses emit dangerous pollutants that kids breathe into their developing lungs, causing respiratory illnesses, aggravating asthma and exposing youth to cancer-causing pollutants. In a Yale study of children’s exposure to diesel exhaust on school buses, it’s clearly laid out: “There is no known safe level of exposure to diesel exhaust for children, especially those with respiratory illness.”