WASHINGTON - The alternative to the clean-air deal accepted by American Honda Motor Co. last week was either an immediate $500 million recall or a protracted court fight.
So the car company, which takes pride in its environmental reputation, agreed instead to pay $17.1 million in penalties and to spend an estimated $250 million over 14 years to limit pollution from 1.6 million 1995-97 vehicles that the government says do not meet federal clean-air rules.
Federal officials said the cost, discounted for inflation, would be about $150 million, the figure reported last week by Automotive News. But the ultimate value of Honda's extended warranties and free maintenance for offending cars and minivans remains subject to debate.
'Nothing like this has ever been done in the industry before,' said William Willen, managing counsel for Honda. He challenged any estimate as 'a semieducated guess.'
But this much is known: If a federal court approves the deal, Honda still could be fixing, free of charge, the emissions devices on some of the vehicles through 2011.
Left unsettled is whether the vehicles were tweaked to pass emission tests.
Also still unknown are what lasting damage, if any, has been done to Honda's Mr. Clean image and whether any criminal charges might be filed.
'These cases were both civil cases, and they release the companies from liability on the civil side. They do not in any way address or foreclose any efforts on the criminal side,' said Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lois Schiffer. She would not confirm or deny the existence of criminal investigations.
The other case she referred to was a separate $7.8 million settlement with Ford Motor Co., partly overshadowed by the dimensions of the Honda agreement. It stemmed mostly from federal claims that 60,000 1997 Econoline vans pollute more than rules allow.
Ford spokeswoman Sara Tatchio said her company does not expect criminal action. 'We consider this finished,' she said.
Likewise, Willen of Honda contended, 'Certainly there was no criminal intent.' He also disputed federal assertions that Honda 'disconnected' emissions devices, and that the affected vehicles, without changes, would be major polluters.
Asked if the violations could have been inadvertent, EPA attorney Bruce Fergusson said, 'The engineers who are designing these cars know what they are doing.'
While the out-of-court settlements included provisions that allow Honda and Ford to deny wrongdoing, federal officials had some tough talk for the two and for other potential offenders.
'Those who violate the Clean Air Act are putting their bottom line ahead of the public health and the environment. They will be held accountable,' Schiffer said.
Steven Herman, assistant EPA administrator for enforcement, added, 'In settling these cases, the EPA and the Department of Justice followed a basic principle: Polluters will be required to pay for the damage they cause as well as prevent future damage.'
Honda spokesman Kurt Antonius said his company plans no special advertising campaign to combat damage to its image. 'We'll just keep our nose to the grindstone and develop more clean-air vehicles. We had an unfortunate mistake here.'
The failure of Honda's on-board misfire detection system was discovered by California Air Resources Board employees.
EPA officials became suspicious of Ford's Econoline vans after company officials inquired about the speed at which the agency tests for certain emissions.