by James Poulos | October 2, 2015 6:44 am
Amid a broad crackdown on Volkswagen by federal authorities and state attorneys general, California officials moved to pursue the strictest penalties against the company, whose evasion of emissions regulations was revealed by a state Air Resources Board investigation.
Board chairwoman Mary Nichols, a close longtime ally of Gov. Jerry Brown, revealed that the board was organizing itself for what she called a “major enforcement action,” according to Reuters. “The state is also preparing to oversee a recall of vehicles in California equipped with the device that allowed it to pass laboratory tests measuring their output of the air pollutant NOx, which contributes to smog, Nichols said.”
Initially, VW cars tested in the board’s lab passed inspection. But when the International Council on Clean Transportation discovered huge discrepancies in VW’s emissions during real-world tests, state and federal regulators closed in. “The California watchdog and the U.S. Environment Protection Agency opened an investigation into Volkswagen in May 2014,” Bloomberg reported. “The company said it had identified the reasons for the higher emissions and proposed a fix. That resulted in a recall of nearly 500,000 U.S. vehicles in December to implement a software patch.”
But those changes weren’t enough. The board suggested road tests didn’t vindicate the patch. “Sure enough, nitrogen oxide emissions were still in violation of California and U.S. laws. The agency shared those findings with Volkswagen and the EPA on July 8,” Bloomberg noted.
The board’s assertiveness reflected an intention to make up for its failure to detect the emissions using more frequent road tests. But spokesman Dave Clegern told the Sacramento Bee that the board had been hobbled by the pace of technology, insisting “the agency didn’t have access until three years ago to the portable emissions testing devices needed to road-test diesel cars for emissions.” Now, along with the EPA, the board has moved to put automakers on notice that scrutiny has been heightened. Although there’s no evidence another automaker has evaded standards, Clegern said, “it’s better to be safe.”
In addition to spreading outrage among environmentalists, VW’s deception raised immediate questions about its direct impact on people’s health. “The engines that VW tweaked to run quickly and efficiently also spewed out a form of pollutant that, over time and in big numbers, can be lethal,” the Orange County Register observed. “Based on academic research about the health effects of nitrogen oxides, numbers of vehicles on the road and the miles driven, the affected cars may have killed dozens of people in California and more than 100 nationally.”
As was to be expected, Volkswagen has been hit with a barrage of lawsuits. Two suits “have been filed in San Diego and Los Angeles over Volkswagen tampering with emissions testing on VW and Audi models to deceive regulators,” reported NBC San Diego. In Sacramento federal court, plaintiffs sought certification for a class action suit “on behalf of ‘tens of thousands’ of Californians who purchased or leased one or more of the diesel VWs secretly equipped by the manufacturer with a device that defeated emissions tests by federal and state regulators,” according to the Sacramento Bee. “Model years 2009 to 2015 are targeted in the complaint.”
Meanwhile, irate VW dealers found themselves “paralyzed” by the crisis, according to the Los Angeles Times. Because they’re not employed by Volkswagen, they have escaped liability for its wrongdoing but wound up unable to sell product or reassure customers. “The Environmental Protection Agency has refused to certify the 2016 line of Volkswagen diesels, and the company has issued a stop-sell order to its dealers, preventing them from selling new diesel cars and certified used ones,” the Times noted.
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