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EPA Drops the Other Shoe On Those Volkswagen Emissions Violations

In a Jan. 4 blog post, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief, Gina McCarthy, promised a busy year to follow up the historic COP21 Paris climate agreement, and she certainly hasn't let any dust collect under her feet. The first order of business: following through on the Volkswagen emissions scandal.

The scandal erupted last fall when the EPA determined that Volkswagen was deliberately cheating on tests for its diesel cars. Since then, the EPA has been in discussions with the company to work on a recall strategy, but it looks like the talks have stalled out, and the agency is taking it to the next level with a lawsuit.

The Volkswagen emissions scandal grows

If you've been following the the Volkswagen emissions scandal, then you know that the EPA has not exactly been treating this case with kid gloves. TriplePundit dialed into a live EPA press conference when the case broke last September, and the officials who spoke were palpably outraged and angry.

For those of you new to the topic, an EPA blog post from Oct. 7 sums it up:

"Last month, Volkswagen admitted to EPA and the California Air Resources Board that the company employed a sophisticated device to cheat U.S. emissions standards in certain diesel cars, including the Audi A3, Beetle, Golf, Jetta, and Passat. We take this matter very seriously. It’s not only a violation of the Clean Air Act, it threatens public health and the credibility of the industry."

The very concept of "clean diesel" has been called into question, and the EPA has expanded its investigation, which ironically touched off when the International Council on Clean Transportation contacted West Virginia University to measure emissions from diesel cars sold in the U.S. as a benchmark against which to judge European models.

EPA brings the hammer down

In the latest development, the EPA has teamed with the U.S. Department of justice, which filed a civil complaint in federal court against Volkswagen -- including Volkswagen AG, Audi AG, Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., Volkswagen Group of America Chattanooga Operations, LLC, Porsche AG, and Porsche Cars North America, Inc. -- for selling almost 600,000 diesel cars in the U.S. equipped with illegal "defeat devices," and that Volkswagen violated the Clean Air Act by selling cars that were significantly different from the designs stated in their certification applications to EPA and the California Air Resources Board.

Here's a snippet from the EPA press release:

"With today’s filing, we take an important step to protect public health by seeking to hold Volkswagen accountable for any unlawful air pollution, setting us on a path to resolution. So far, recall discussions with the company have not produced an acceptable way forward. These discussions will continue in parallel with the federal court action."

The Department of Justice also weighed in, noting that "car manufacturers that fail to properly certify their cars and that defeat emission control systems breach the public trust, endanger public health and disadvantage competitors."

The California Air Resources Board underscored the health impacts:

"VW’s illegal defeat devices have resulted in thousands of tons of excess NOx emissions in California, a state where more than 12 million people live in areas that exceed air quality standards set to protect public health."

And, the EPA hammered the point home:
"NOx pollution contributes to harmful ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter. These pollutants are linked with asthma and other serious respiratory illnesses. Exposure to ozone and particulate matter is also associated with premature death due to respiratory-related or cardiovascular-related effects. Children, the elderly, and people with pre-existing respiratory disease are particularly at risk of health effects from exposure to these pollutants. Recent studies indicate that the direct health effects of NOx are worse than previously understood, including respiratory problems, damage to lung tissue, and premature death."

This is only the beginning ...

The Volkswagen emissions lawsuit is just the beginning, according to EPA Chief McCarthy. The aforementioned Jan. 4 blog post is titled, "In 2016, We're Hitting the Ground Running."

In addition to providing technical assistance to other countries for greenhouse gas monitoring and measuring, the agency will work on improving fuel economy for heavy-duty vehicles as well as cars, reducing emissions from oil and gas operations, and putting the Clean Power Plan into action.

Hold on to your hats ...

Image: via US EPA

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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