Muni's Smoggy Situation Lays Down Smoke Screen
Health advocates say Polluting Buses Are Breaking the Law
February 24, 2005 3:35 PM
Environmentalists and health advocates told the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last week that the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) still has not removed its worst polluting diesel buses from service, despite a ballot initative passed last year requiring them to do so by Jan. 1.
In March 2004 two-thirds of San Francisco voters passed Proposition I. It mandated that all 144 diesel buses made before 1991 be retired. Muni will phase out 45 of its 1988 models this year, then 56 of the 1989 models next year, and 40 of the 1990 buses the following year.
Linda Weiner, director of communications for the American Lung Association, spoke at the City Hall hearing on Feb. 16. She asked the Board of Supervisor's Land Use Committee to pull diesel buses off the road as soon as possible.
"These buses are so old they cannot be retrofitted with any modern technology and in the meantime continue to spew toxic emissions that can lead to lung cancer and premature death," Weiner told supervisors Sophie Maxwell, Gerardo Sandoval and Jake McGoldrick.
She cited a finding from the California Air Resources Board that a substantial number of cancer cases could be traced to diesel fuel exhaust. The 1998 study done by the board found that bus exhaust contained arsenic, dioxin, lead, mercury and benzene.
According to Weiner, one out of six people in San Francisco complain of asthma. She advised anyone with a respiratory ailment to avoid being exposed to diesel fuel exhaust. She cautioned the infirmed who live along a Muni bus route to stay indoors during hours of its service operation or even to wear a surgical mask.
"The particulate matter from diesel bus exhaust exacerbates asthma," she said. "And it's especially bad for young children or the elderly."
Anna Marie Cabarelloz is a junior majoring in photography at SF State. She relies on the No. 28 bus to commute to school. She said she is well aware of the diesel exhaust, but it only bothers her a bit when she exits the bus.
"I would definitely use an electric (Light Rail Vehicle) if they had a different line," said Cabarelloz. "I can use the L (Taraval) but the distance is kind of far for me."
Cabarelloz, who lives just two blocks from the No. 28 line, can still hear it roaring pass at night while she is trying to study for exams. She said that she and her friends would prefer to take the M-line, if it ran all the way up 19th Avenue.
"That would make much more sense," said Cabarelloz.
Joe Speaks, representing Muni, maintained that a three-part strategy known as Muniís "Clean Air Plan" was on schedule to meet its goal. He said the objective was to convert the entire fleet by 2020 with Zero Emissions Vehicles (ZEVs).
"The fleet is already 51 percent electric," Speaks said.
The first part of the plan is to maximize the conversion of 500 diesels to ZEVs. The second step is to replace conventional diesels with electric drive buses. And finally, the plan called for an immediate upgrade of conventional diesels to low emission diesels. Speaks said it would reduce emissions by 88 percent from the 1997-2003 levels.
"Let's not get carried away with the latest whiz-bang technology," Speaks cautioned.
He referred to Muniís plan to purchase a fleet of diesel/electric hybrid buses. They will cost $25 million and Muni is still exploring ways to obtain the funds. He reminded the Land Use Committee that Muni is under pressure to close a $57 million gap it has incurred for the 2005-06 budget.
Jon Golinger, former organizer for Proposition I, now spokesman for an environmental coalition that includes the National Resources Defense Council, told the Land Use Committee, "We realize it's a tough budget climate, but not a penny for cleaner buses should be spent on operational costs."
Golinger explained that buying buses is a capital expense and that Muni has a reserve fund just to buy buses. He said Proposition K, passed in November 2003, raised the sales tax from 8 percent to 8.5 percent in the city for transit improvement, especially for Muni.
He complained that it was a cause for concern that the first deadline for complying with a voter-approved measure has come and gone without compliance. He said Muni could have applied for a one-year extension but has taken neither action and is in violation of the law.
He said diesel buses covered homes all along their destination routes with sooty exhaust. People passing by the buses and passengers riding inside are exposed to toxic emissions, he said.
"You see them, you taste them, they're there every day," Golinger said.
Golinger said he hoped the Board of Supervisors would force Muni into compliance or else the City Attorney could be compelled to file a lawsuit.
John Rizzo, chair of the Bay Area chapter of the Sierra Club told the Land Use Committee he agreed with the previous critics of Muni.
"Proposition I was succinct. Voters knew what they were voting for. It's the law! And Muni needs to abide by it," siad Rizzo.
Despite his demand for compliance, Rizzo said he hoped the Sierra Club could work with Muni to implement Proposition I in any way we can. But Rizzo said Muni squandered an opportunity several years ago when they turned down government funding to buy 15 natural gas (CNG) buses.
Although environmentalists are pleased with plans to purchase hybrid diesel-electric buses, they maintained that the CNG models would emit the least emissions.
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