Volkswagen’s recent deception that evaded regulations on diesel exhaust emissions were far more serious than initially understood. The company’s cars emitted 10 to 40 times the legal limit of some pollutants and added to air emissions at a time U.S. air was generally getting cleaner.
The reckless corporate actions put the public’s health at risk. A recent analysis by the Associated Press and scientists calculated that as many as 94 U.S. residents could have been killed over seven years as a result of elevated emissions.
The evidence is circumstantial. The AP and professor Peter Adams, who is an environmental engineer at Carnegie Mellon University, used computer modeling to estimate the impacts. AP says several independent scientific experts reviewed the work and confirmed the calculations.
Two highly regarded engineers, since suspended by the company, have drawn the eye of German investigators. But executives – including Martin Winterkorn, the CEO who resigned – are ultimately responsible for allowing their company to perpetuate such a massive fraud on consumers.
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The company installed special software that tricked emissions testers in the U.S. for nearly 500,000 vehicles, which now have been recalled. Because the “defeat device” was in cars sold in Europe, too, the fraud put 11 million heavy-polluting cars on the road.
It was a willful and elaborate plot to sell the notion of clean diesel engines, which were actually doing the opposite.
Diesel soot is especially damaging to human health. As the Associated Press reported, “those tiny particles cause about 50,000 deaths a year in the United States, mostly from heart problems.’’
Emissions of nitrogen oxides from the VWs were between 10 and 40 times the levels allowed by U.S. regulations, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Environmental health costs could be $40 million to $170 million a year including lost lives.
“Even the small increase in NOx (nitrogen oxide) from VW diesel emissions is likely to have worsened pollution along the roadways where they have traveled, and affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” said Dan Greenbaum, leader of Health Effects Institute, a Boston-based group funded by the EPA and automotive industry.
Some may remember Joe Izuzu in the TV ads of the late 1980s, who only pretended to have driven SUVs onto steep mountain tops. It was all in fun. A clean diesel engine in a Volkswagen was supposed to be real.
Consumers deserve to be compensated for cars they purchased under false pretenses, and the EPA could fine VW as much as $37,500 for each vehicle that exceeded emissions limits (or $18 billion overall).
Criminal charges are not out of the question. Executives and the hands-on culprits must be held to account.
It would be a bigger crime if they get off like the Wall Street rogues whose recklessness crashed the world economy in 2008.