Obama Budget Slashes Clean Diesel Funding

President Obama's proposed budget calls for cutting all funding for a popular EPA program that retrofits diesel trucks and buses to cut harmful emissions. The Clean Diesel program is a rare environmental program that attracted bipartisan support, and the decision to eliminate funding was a big surprise.

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Here in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Diesel Program has slashed pollution from school buses and other diesel engines around the country. The five-year-old program is so popular that during last year's lame-duck session of Congress, the Senate unanimously approved continuing it.

But NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports that in his new budget, President Obama is proposing to stop funding it.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Outside schools at East Chicago, Indiana, the buses line up one after another, waiting to pick up kids. Drivers keep the engines idling to keep the buses warm.

Ms. ESTELLE POWELL: The exhaust from one bus goes in and fills up the other bus, so that when the students get on you know it's not healthy for the children.

SHOGREN: Estelle Powell coordinates regulations for the school bus system. She says that thanks to the Clean Diesel Program, the air will get a lot healthier for kids here. The school system has approval to buy heaters for each bus.

Ms. POWELL: Once these heaters get on the buses and we will be able to cut off our motors, we won't have any exhaust coming into the air, period.

SHOGREN: The Clean Diesel Program pays for a variety of pollution control devices. It also funds heaters and other technology that helps drivers avoid idling, so it saves lots of fuel.

Scott Deloney runs Indiana's air pollution program. He says the Clean Diesel Program is so popular that he had to reject 80 percent of the applicants for grants in each of the last two years. He says in recent years all of the money for these grants has come straight from the federal government.

Mr. SCOTT DELONEY (Indiana Official): Eliminating this type of funding will significantly reduce our ability to reduce children's exposure to diesel exhaust.

SHOGREN: Environmental groups, public health advocates and industry groups were shocked to hear the president's proposal to stop funding the program in 2012. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson says deciding to cut it is painful.

Ms. LISA JACKSON (EPA): This is a program that for every dollar spent we know has a history of giving us 12, 13 dollars in health benefits.

SHOGREN: Like fewer ER visits and hospital stays. That's because diesel exhaust make asthma and other lung ailments worse. They also contribute to deadly illnesses, like lung cancer. The EPA program is rare in that industry likes it too.

Allen Schaeffer heads the Diesel Technology Forum, an industry group.

Mr. ALLEN SCHAEFFER (Diesel Technology Forum): It's an undisputed success -that's what makes it so heartbreaking to see the program be proposed for elimination. And I say proposed because it's our view that this is only a start of this conversation.

SHOGREN: He and environmental groups will work hard to get Congress to keep funding the program.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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