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Administrator Wheeler Addresses State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services During Children's Health Month

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WASHINGTON (Oct. 16, 2019) - This morning, US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler addressed the the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services at their annual meeting in Arlington, Virginia. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:

"Good morning, it's a pleasure to be with you today. First, I want to thank Charlie Hood and the Board of Directors for inviting me to speak today. Your organization has been an extremely valuable partner of EPA for many years, and we welcome your feedback and support. 

As you may know, October is Children's Health Month. During this month, we're highlighting all our programs and resources available to our state and local partners to safeguard the health and future of our children.

I think it's safe to say that for everyone here the health and safety of our nation's children is your number one priority. Over 25 million children rely on school buses to get to and from school each day. And thanks to your efforts, the school bus is one of the safest modes of transportation available.

While it is critically important to transport children safely between home and school, it is also important that the air they breathe on that journey is clean. Because their lungs are not yet fully developed, children are especially vulnerable to air pollution. And the health issues they face when they're young can impact the rest of their lives.

Pollution from old diesel school bus engines can have serious health consequences for children. The good news is that modern emission standards - coupled with the latest emission control technologies - mean that new buses are 60 times cleaner than pre-1990 models.

EPA plays a leading role in the effort to upgrade and modernize our nation's school bus fleet. Since 2008, EPA has awarded funding from the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, or DERA, to states, tribes, non-profits, schools, and other fleet owners to clean up old, dirty diesel engines.

DERA is an important program that provides communities with cleaner air and improved health outcomes. This past Summer, EPA published its 4th DERA Report to Congress, summarizing the accomplishments of the program between 2008 and 2016. During those years, EPA awarded a total of $629 million to clean up 67,300 diesel engines. The emission reductions resulted in up to $19 billion in health benefits and up to 2,300 fewer premature deaths. 

On top of this, private funding has matched DERA funding three to one.

School buses have always been a critical part of the success of the DERA program. They account for 43 percent of engines cleaned up using DERA funds. That's more than any other sector.

I'm pleased to announce that funding availability for the latest round of EPA's School Bus Rebate Program is now open. This is our seventh year offering this opportunity to clean up old diesel school buses across the country.

Fleets can apply with a simple one-page application. Then, they will be entered into a lottery. If selected, they will scrap their old diesel buses and replace them with new school buses that meet the latest emission standards. These new buses can be diesel, gasoline, CNG, propane, or battery-electric. Within a year of the application period, these fleets will receive $15,000 to $20,000 per bus that they have replaced. 

In the previous six years of the rebate program, we have funded nearly 1,800 school bus replacements with $35 million in EPA funds.

But we know that this just scratches the surface.

Over those six years, we received applications seeking $280 million to replace 13,000 buses. In response to this demand, each year of the rebate program, we have been able to increase the total available funds.

This year, for the first time, we are offering over $10 million for school bus replacements. The application period closes October 30th, so please spread the word in your states. 

Nearly 30,000 school buses across the country have already been made cleaner as a result of DERA funding. Not only are we improving air quality, but we're providing safer and more reliable transportation to and from school.

On a similar front, I want to tell you about one of the most important regulatory actions we'll be undertaking next year. We are moving forward with a new proposal to reduce emissions from heavy-duty trucks, which includes vocational vehicles and school buses. This new proposal is called our Cleaner Trucks Initiative.

Thanks largely to innovation and technology, the U.S. has made major reductions in nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions over the past several decades. NOx emissions are a precursor to ozone, one of the main criteria air pollutants that EPA regulates.  

Since 2000, NOx emissions in the U.S. have fallen by 52 percent. However, it is estimated that heavy-duty trucks will be responsible for one-third of NOx emissions from transportation in 2025. And it's been nearly 20 years since EPA last set NOx emissions standards for heavy-duty trucks.

By working closely with states and the private sector, we will reduce NOx emissions from heavy-duty trucks. This is not required by statute or court order, but it makes sense to do and it will help more areas - especially urban areas - reach attainment of federal air quality standards. And attainment means fewer regulatory burdens and more economic development.

Part of this initiative will also be to cut unnecessary red tape and simplify certification and compliance requirements for heavy-duty vehicles. For the past two decades, regulatory requirements for heavy-duty vehicles have been piled on in a piecemeal fashion. This has resulted in some overly complex and costly requirements that do little to actually improve the environment.

We will undertake a comprehensive review of existing requirements and root out these inefficiencies. We will ensure that our heavy-duty trucks are clean and able to remain a competitive method of transportation. 

We intend to issue this proposal toward the beginning of next year. California has already begun work on a lower NOx standard, and EPA's effort will help provide a commonsense, 50-state approach. We believe our initiative would result in significant mobile source NOx reductions. This is especially true for cities and areas with heavy stop-and-go traffic, where small improvements can make a big difference.

Our goal at EPA is to work cooperatively with the states to improve air quality in a manner that does not jeopardize the historic economic growth we're seeing. Since the fall of 2017, we've re-designated 19 areas around the country, moving them into attainment with federal air quality standards and lifting major regulatory burdens off local businesses. The re-designation process requires us to work hand-in-hand with the particular state.

To give you an idea of our change in approach, the previous administration imposed more than 50 Federal Implementation Plans (FIPs) on states. Instead of working with the states to help them develop State Implementation Plans (SIPs), they essentially imposed a federal mandate for how the state would comply. These 50 FIPS were about 10 times the number imposed by the three previous administrations combined. We are working hard to convert these FIPs back to SIPs, averaging almost one FIP-to-SIP per month since March 2017.

We are also aggressively tackling the backlog of SIPs that we inherited from the previous administration. Of the more than 700 SIPs we inherited, we've taken action on over 400.

Since October is Children's Health Month, I'd like to share a little more about what we're doing to protect the health and future of our children.

Today, we are releasing an updated version of the Agency's report on childhood environmental indicators. These are the metrics that tell us how we're doing as a nation with respect to children's environmental health. The report is called "America's Children and the Environment," and we are releasing the first major update since 2013.

Here's a preview of some of our most important findings:

  • The median concentration of lead in the blood of children between the ages of 1 and 5 years declined 95 percent from 1976 to 2016. 

  • From 1999 to 2017, the percentage of children living in counties with concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) above the current standard decreased by nearly 50 percent.

  • The estimated percentage of children served by community drinking water systems that met all health-based standards increased from 82 percent in 1993 to 94 percent in 2017.

And here's a stat that blew me away the first time I heard it: According to the United Nation's 2018 Global Mercury Assessment, the share of anthropogenic mercury deposited in North America from domestic sources is only 15 percent, down from 23 percent in the 2013 assessment.

We've reduced man-made mercury emissions to the point where a much greater share of mercury deposited in North America comes from foreign sources, predominantly China. These are remarkable achievements that we owe to progress at the federal, state, and local levels - as well as technological breakthroughs in the private sector. We should be celebrating this progress.

My frustration with some of the media is that they don't tell this side of the story. If you had similar reductions in opioid addiction or gang violence, it would lead the nightly news. The public deserves to know how far we've come as a nation - and how we got there. At the same time, we know that we have more work to do - the media never misses an opportunity to remind me of that.

Pollution is on the decline. Our task now is to hasten its decline, particularly in the most at-risk communities.

Last week, we issued our proposal for the first major overhaul of the Lead and Copper Rule since 1991. The country knows a lot more now than we did in the 90s about the impact of lead in drinking water, especially on children.

Our proposal builds on modern science and takes a proactive and holistic approach - from testing to treatment to replacing lead service lines to communicating clearly with the public about the levels and risks of lead exposure.

When I was briefed by staff early in the rulemaking process, I told them we must ensure that the last mile of lead service lines replaced are not in communities that are most at risk. My fear was that affluent communities would have their lines replaced first, while low-income communities would have to wait years.

These communities can't afford to wait.

That is why our proposal includes a suite of new actions to identify and address the most impacted areas. Included in that are first-ever actions to protect children in schools and day care facilities. For the first time, we are proposing that community water systems sample drinking water outlets at each school and each child care facility served by the system. This information would be publicly available as well. This is a major new step to protect the health and future of our nation's children.

On the campaign trail, President Trump said he wants to make sure that there are no more Flint, Michigans, and that has been a guiding principle for us. This is one of the reasons our proposal would require systems to notify customers within 24 hours if lead is found in their water. Part of the problem in Flint was a serious failure of communication by state and local officials, as well as the EPA. So this proposal is a major priority for the President - and it's been a major priority for us at the agency.

Earlier this year, we also finalized stronger lead-dust standards for the first time in two decades.

Finally, we have new funding programs designed to target lead in drinking water. Our new lead testing grant program will award nearly $44 million for testing for lead in drinking water at schools and child care programs.

We also have a new Small and Disadvantaged Communities grant program, which will award nearly $43 million to support underserved communities by bringing public drinking water systems into compliance.

The last area I'll mention is environmental education. Like our transportation officials, EPA's Office of Environmental Education works hard to improve educational outcomes for students across the country.

The office trains teachers on environmental education and implements a multi-million dollar grant program. Within the next month, we will be soliciting applications for our 2020 environmental education grant program for roughly $3 million.

Many types of projects are eligible, including projects that improve air quality. If you would like information on any of these programs, please follow up with a member of my team.

We're doing more at the Agency to protect children than we've done in many years. And I'm grateful for the opportunity to share those efforts with you today.

Thank you for your time, thank you for your attention, and I would be glad to take your questions in the time remaining."