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Push for electric school buses in New Mexico

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Jessica Ramirez, right, describes respiratory problems she says her daughter experienced because of protracted exposure to school bus diesel pollutants. Ramirez was among a group of people attending a rally Thursday calling for the state to use Volkswagen settlement funds to replace diesel school buses with zero-emission electric buses. With her are Victor Nevarez, left, and Estafany Gonzalez-Mendoza. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Members of the grass-roots organization Juntos: Our Air, Our Water held a rally Thursday to demand that New Mexico’s $18 million portion from the Volkswagen Mitigation Trust Fund be used exclusively to buy electric school buses and to retrofit existing buses to meet zero emissions standards.

The money came from a $15 billion settlement the vehicle manufacturer had to pay consumers and to states after it was learned that nearly half a million Volkswagens and Audis with diesel engines were programmed to cheat on emissions tests.

About 25 people from Juntos, a program of Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund, gathered at Tingley Field Park east of the ABQ BioPark Zoo to protest the lack of a formal public comment process for determining the use of the settlement money.

They also called on Gov. Susana Martinez, the New Mexico Environment Department, the Public Education Department and the Department of Transportation to come up with a state mitigation plan for the $18 million that focuses on zero-emission school buses.

Their request was put into a petition that was signed by 2,000 people. After the rally, members of Juntos drove to Santa Fe to deliver the petition to the governor and to the offices of the state Environment Department.

Juntos spokeswoman Liliana Castillo said about 166,000 children ride school buses daily in New Mexico.

It is estimated that 1 in 11 of these children suffer from asthma and other respiratory problems, she said, and the pollutants emitted from diesel-powered buses aggravate their health conditions.

When New Mexico received the money from the Volkswagen settlement, Castillo said, “the only requirement was to mitigate diesel pollution, so the state’s executive-level departments have a lot of flexibility on how they shape a mitigation plan.”

Among the speakers Thursday was state Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, who said she plans to introduce legislation that would direct state officials to use the settlement money to begin replacing diesel school buses with electric buses and to retrofit existing buses – and to not co-mingle the $18 million settlement with other state funds.

“We don’t want a replication of what occurred in the past, and how we had to battle for the use of tobacco settlement funds in order to address the health issues related to the use of tobacco,” she said.

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