Transportation

VW's polluting cars could cause sickness, death. What can California do about that?

A California Air Resources Board technician tests a Volkswagen Passat diesel car at the agency’s lab in El Monte in 2015, when officials discovered VW was cheating on emissions tests. The state is spending $423 million of Volkswagen's penalty money to get more clean-burning trucks and buses on the road.
A California Air Resources Board technician tests a Volkswagen Passat diesel car at the agency’s lab in El Monte in 2015, when officials discovered VW was cheating on emissions tests. The state is spending $423 million of Volkswagen's penalty money to get more clean-burning trucks and buses on the road. New York Times

Californians spent six years breathing dangerous exhaust fumes from illegal diesel cars produced by Volkswagen. Now the state's air pollution cops are crafting a remedy for that damage that has been done.

The California Air Resources Board is finalizing a plan to spend $423 million of Volkswagen's money on financial incentives to persuade trucking companies, mass-transit agencies, tugboat operators and other major polluters to upgrade their fleets and buy greener vehicles.

The idea is to eventually take as much pollution out of California's air as Volkswagen's dirty cars put in — especially the heavy volume of smog-forming nitrogen oxide, or NOx, caused by the VW vehicles.

"This is about offsetting the emissions impact, specifically the NOx impact," said program supervisor Peter Christensen, the manager of the Air Resources Board's heavy-duty strategies section. Christensen said the program is targeted at trucks, buses and other heavy vehicles because that's where a major portion of California's NOx pollution comes from.

Nailed by state and federal officials in 2015 for illegally selling thousands of highly-polluting cars, the German automaker agreed to spend billions in California and other states. Most of the money is being used to take the offending cars off the road or fix their emissions-control mechanisms when possible.

As part of a court settlement, VW has handed the Air Resources Board $423 million to address a somewhat different issue connected to the diesel scandal: how to fix the environmental harm that has already occurred.

It won't be easy. Environmentalists say the ARB plan is a good one, but it shows the inherent difficulties of trying to remedy problems caused by VW's illegal diesel cars. Putting low-polluting trucks and buses on the road will reduce air pollution in the future but won't necessarily address current VW-related issues.

"It's not going to undo the damage that has been done to your lungs," said Will Barrett, a senior policy analyst with the American Lung Association's California chapter. "The pollution's out there; it's been emitted."

Nevertheless, Barrett calls the state's spending plan "an important opportunity to take advantage of what was a terrible assault on public health."

The Air Resources Board plans to vote on the spending plan May 25.

VW admitted in late 2015 that it put nearly 600,000 illegal diesel Volkswagens and Audis on U.S. roads between 2009 and 2015. That included 85,000 sold in California.

The cars were equipped with rogue "defeat device" software that switched off their emissions-control system while on the road but turned them on while they were being smog-checked. The cars perform better and get improved fuel mileage with the pollution controls switched off. Volkswagen's scheme was largely uncovered by engineers at ARB's test lab in El Monte working with graduate student researchers from West Virginia University.

Volkswagen agreed to settlements with state and federal agencies totaling more than $15 billion in 2016, with about two-thirds being used to buy back or fix the tainted vehicles. The automaker also is spending $800 million over the next decade to build charging stations and other infrastructure to popularize and promote electric passenger cars across California.

A state law passed after the scandal was uncovered mandates that at least 35 percent of Volkswagen-related penalties be spent in disadvantaged communities. Christensen said ARB's plan is to direct at least 50 percent of the mitigation dollars in those areas, ensuring more clean buses, trucks and so on for pollution-stricken regions like the San Joaquin Valley.

"A lot of these heavy-duty (pollution) sources tend to be located in or near disadvantaged communities," he said.

The agency says the tainted VWs, during their time on the road, have generated a total of 10,000 tons of additional NOx emissions in California.

That's the equivalent of 600,000 additional cars on the road, according to the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District.

How much harm was done to the public? Using federal Environmental Protection Agency data, Bill Magavern of the Coalition for Clean Air, a Sacramento environmental lobbyist, said 10,000 additional tons of NOx could be responsible for as many as 19 deaths, 610 asthma attacks and 1,200 lost workdays.

His calculations are roughly in line with a study estimating the nationwide impact of VW's misdeeds. That study, published in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters, predicted the VW cars would be responsible for 59 premature deaths in the United States.

Getting transit agencies, trucking firms and others to buy cleaner vehicles will reduce NOx levels in California by 10,000 tons — the same amount generated by Volkswagen's illegal cars. But it won't make the VW problem immediately go away, Magavern said.

That's because the Air Resources Board is doling out the financial incentives gradually, to give transit agencies and other participants enough time to budget for these expenditures. It could take as many as 10 years for ARB to complete the program.

In the meantime, the health effects of Volkswagen's actions will linger.

"This excess pollution has been going into the air for years," Magavern said. The state's response, while promising, "can't be as good as if (the pollution) were never emitted at all."

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