Clean Air Villain of the Month

August 2000


(Washington, D.C. August 1, 2000) - The nonprofit Clean Air Trust today awarded its clean air "Villain of the Month" award for August to six diesel engine companies that appear to be trying to wriggle out of a legal agreement to clean up their dirty engines.

The six companies -- Caterpillar Inc., Cummins Engine Co., Detroit Diesel Corp., Mack Trucks, Inc., Renault and Volvo Truck Corp. -- met last week with high-ranking officials of the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. The meeting was the latest twist in a sorry, decade-long tale of deception and evasion by the engine makers.

Only 13 months ago, on July 1, 1999, these companies signed a consent decree with the Justice Department and the State of California. The agreement concluded a government investigation which determined that the companies (and Navistar, which signed a somewhat different agreement) had sold more than a million heavy-duty diesel engines containing illegal emission control "defeat devices." These devices allowed the engines to pass pre-sale emissions tests, but then turn off the emission controls during highway driving.

As a result, these engines emit up to triple the permissible level of smog-forming nitrogen oxides (NOx). In 1998 alone, these violating vehicles emitted 1.3 million tons of additional NOx -- an amount equal to the emissions of 65 million cars.

When the consent decree was announced, Attorney General Janet Reno hailed it as "the largest settlement in the history of the Clean Air Act." EPA Administrator Carol Browner added it was "one of the largest environmental enforcement actions in history," one in which the companies agreed to pay more than $83 million in civil penalties and meet tougher standards. Among those tougher standards: the companies agreed to meet emission limits based on real-world operating conditions.

The ink was barely dry on the consent agreement, however, when the companies began asserting that they needed "relief" from the tougher emission limits. They argued that they might not be able to meet the limits when it's too hot, too cold, or at higher altitudes -- encouraging some observers to say they needed "goldilocks" conditions that are "just right."

Under the radar of public attention, the companies lobbied and killed a key provision of an EPA rule that was designed to codify the tougher emission limits by 2004. (EPA quietly signed the rule yesterday. It won't require the tougher emission limits until 2007.) And now the companies are pressing their case at the Justice Department.

State and local air pollution regulators, who would face more pollution in their communities (and thus more burdens on other air pollution sources) if the emission limits are weakened, are trying to block the rollback. In a letter yesterday to high-level officials at the Justice Department and EPA, they said "no relief is warranted" and encouraged the government to stand firm. (Please let us know if you want a copy of their letter.)

The state and local agencies also threatened that if the federal government caves, California might adopt tougher standards, which other states could adopt in turn.