WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) -- Volkswagen AG bragged its diesel models were some of the cleanest on the highways. In fact, they added the equivalent of as many as 19 million chemical-spewing cars to American roads, depending on calculations.
Based on the EPA's estimate that 482,000 vehicles in the U.S. were polluting as much as 40 times the legal limit, that equals almost 12,000 additional tons of nitrogen oxide pollutants per year.
“We are very concerned that there are a lot of emissions involved and the public is being harmed,” Frank O’Donnell, president of the non-profit advocacy group Clean Air Watch in Washington. “We are going to demand that the government forces Volkswagen to fix this.”
Estimates of additional pollutants emitted since 2009 raise questions about possible harm to human health and may become the basis for massive penalties sought by the EPA. Nitrogen oxides combine with other chemicals in the air to form the most common form of smog, which can cause a burning sensation in the lungs and trigger respiratory disease.
O’Donnell said his group believes the illegal emissions were so enormous that the U.S. government should force VW to find ways to make restitution, such as funding cuts of similar power-plant emissions.
“Paying a fine would not be adequate in our opinion,” he said. “They are going to have to come up with ways to reduce emissions further.”
The VW vehicles were programmed to activate pollution-control equipment while being tested for compliance with EPA and the California Air Resources Board standards, ensuring that emissions met legal standards. Afterward, the car’s software switched off the controls so the cars’ performance was maximized while allowing far higher pollutant levels.
Such software modifications are permitted in some cases, but must be disclosed to the EPA. VW didn’t tell EPA about the existence of the software until it was threatened with a halt to sales of its 2016 models, according to agency documents.
Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn stepped down today after nearly a decade at the helm after company shares plunged and the automaker set aside $7.3 billion in an initial tally of costs of the emissions scandal. Winterkorn had vowed to get to the bottom of the scandal and promised to do everything possible to prevent such an incident from happening again.
While it’s impossible to say precisely how much of the NOx gases were released, data from the EPA and other U.S. agencies allow estimates of the totals.
The EPA said Sept. 18 that four VW vehicle models and one built by Audi sold between 2009 and this year were polluting from 10 to 40 times above “compliant levels,” depending on whether they were driven in stop-and-go conditions or on the highway.
If those cars were driven the U.S. average of about 11,000 miles a year and they polluted at the highest level estimated by EPA, it would be the equivalent of adding one large coal-burning power plant in the U.S., according to John Walke, clean air director and senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Even assuming that cars were driven in a mix of conditions -- polluting at 25 times legal limits -- the VW and Audi diesels would emit about 7,500 tons of NOx. That equals about 12 million cars with emissions at the legal limit of .05 grams of NOx per mile.
Because some metropolitan areas in California and the Northeast U.S. struggle to meet smog standards, those VW emissions could be a critical factor to air quality, Walke said.
“This excess burden would only add to air that is already unsafe,” he said.
There are 11 million VW models equipped with the deceptive software worldwide, including the U.S. fleet.
Overall, the VW vehicles in the U.S. are a small part of NOx emissions. The EPA estimated in 2011 there were more than 15 million tons of that category of pollutants emitted from motor vehicles, power plants and other industrial operations. VW’s share of that is less than .1 percent, according to the estimates.