Environmental group sues to force Boston school buses to quit idling

The Conservation Law Foundation observed 42 instances of parked buses with their engines running up to 49 minutes longer than allowed under state rules, which limits idling to no more than five minutes.
The Conservation Law Foundation observed 42 instances of parked buses with their engines running up to 49 minutes longer than allowed under state rules, which limits idling to no more than five minutes. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2018/Globe Staff

Idling school buses often attract the scorn of parents and students in Boston who worry about breathing in the potentially harmful fumes. Now the Conservation Law Foundation has filed a lawsuit to get bus drivers to shut off their engines.

The lawsuit, filed this week in federal district court against the school system’s transportation vendor, Transdev, targets buses the environmental group found were idling too long in three bus yards in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Charlestown in March, April, and July.

The Conservation Law Foundation observed 42 instances of parked buses with their engines running up to 49 minutes longer than allowed under state rules, which limits idling to no more than 5 minutes. The incidents occurred in the morning as the buses set off for their daily runs, as well as in the afternoon. The group did not monitor a fourth yard in Readville.


The lawsuit is part of a broader anti-idling campaign the environmental group started in recent months to push enforcement of laws that regulate emissions and to raise public awareness about the dangers of needlessly running vehicles, an issue of growing concern as more people sit in their idling vehicles preoccupied with their smartphones.

“We are really hoping to impact air quality for communities disproportionately impacted by asthma and upper respiratory diseases that are exasperated by poor air quality,” said Alyssa Rayman-Read, vice president and Massachusetts director for the Conservation Law Foundation. “Boston has disproportionate rates of asthma and upper respiratory problems.”

Idling school buses have long been a concern in Massachusetts — not only in front of school buildings but also in bus yards, which in urban areas are often located in densely populated, low-income neighborhoods where residents are already struggling with respiratory ailments.

Just last year, a Haverhill school bus company, Coppola Bus, entered into a settlement with the US Environmental Protection Agency for buses idling too long in its parking lot, resulting in an $18,000 fine and installation of automatic shut-off devices in its buses.


According to federal and state regulators, diesel emissions can aggravate a variety of health problems, such as asthma, and its fine particles are considered to be a human carcinogen, raising the risk of cancer. Close contact with emissions can cause immediate and severe reactions, including light-headedness, nausea, coughing, and sore throats.

In Boston, the number of people potentially affected by the pollutants is large, according to the lawsuit. More than 25,000 people live within 2 miles of the Roxbury bus yard on Washington Street, about 16,000 people live within 2 miles of the Charlestown yard on D Street, and more than 33,000 people live within 2 miles of the Dorchester yard on Freeport Street. Each of those yards are also located short distances from parks, playgrounds, and schools.

The lawsuit represents the second time in the past decade or so that idling school buses in Boston have attracted legal action.

Five years ago, the school system’s previous bus contractor, First Student, entered into a $450,000 settlement with the state after the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection discovered buses needlessly running their engines outside of schools in Roslindale, Roxbury, Dorchester, and South Boston as well as in other cities where it operated school buses in 2008 and 2009. The agency faulted the company again for additional idling violations between 2010 and 2013.


Transdev, which operates more than 600 school buses in Boston, said it is “committed to providing safe, reliable, and environmentally responsible transportation in the city of Boston.”

“Transdev has been in active discussions with [the foundation] about these claims, and is disappointed that [the foundation] chose to file this lawsuit,” Mitun Seguin, vice president of marketing and communications for Transdev North America, said in a statement. “We are still reviewing the suit, but we are concerned by significant inaccuracies in the lawsuit, and contest the allegations made by [the foundation].”

Seguin did not specify the inaccuracies.

The Boston Public Schools, which owns the bus yards and the buses, was not named as a defendant in the case and therefore declined to comment on the lawsuit. However, the department said it has taken steps in recent years to reduce carbon emissions, replacing more than 60 percent of its diesel buses with ones fueled by propane, which is considered a cleaner fuel source.

The department also said that it continues to look into buses that run on electricity but that currently they are too expensive, costing about $350,000 each to purchase. Propane buses, by contrast, range between $85,000 and $100,000.

The Conservation Law Foundation notified Transdev about the violations it discovered over 60 days ago and also contacted the EPA and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, which haven’t sought enforcement.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, each state sets its own limits for idling time, with Massachusetts settling on five minutes. Exceptions are made for school buses picking up or dropping off students and under other circumstances, such as defrosting windows.


“We have an opportunity to make this an effective and impactful law,” Rayman-Read said. “We are hoping by doing this lawsuit it will have a ripple effect and raise awareness.”

The lawsuit, if successful, could deliver steep penalties to Transdev: $99,681 in civil penalties per day for each violation.

Rayman-Read said her group has had productive conversations with Transdev, but said they filed the lawsuit as a precaution. She said the organization didn’t sue the school system because it was going after entities where it could have the largest impact. Transdev serves 11 million passenger trips daily in 20 countries, and the Conservation Law Foundation is hoping its action will lead to companywide or regional training on reducing unnecessary idling.

Similarly, the foundation monitored buses at the yards instead of going to individual schools because there was a critical mass of vehicles there. But the group may examine buses at individual schools in the future, a more time-consuming but worthwhile endeavor, Rayman-Read said.

“There’s always concerns about idling buses outside of schools and the potential of children going onto the buses with pollutants inside because the windows are open,” she said.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.