EPA still eyeing engine makers over 1998 emissions agreement

By Charlie Morasch, Land Line staff writer | 11/21/2008

The Environmental Protection Agency continues to watch heavy-duty diesel engines built between 1998 and 2003, 10 years after six major U.S. heavy-duty diesel engine makers agreed to a billion-dollar settlement with the federal agency.

On Wednesday, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice held the annual public meeting regarding the out-of-court settlement that includes a consent decree, which, among other things, requires the engine manufacturers to re-flash the existing engines to lower oxides of nitrogen emissions.

Basically, re-flashing entails a manufacturer reworking the engine control module so the engine will emit less NOx.

In 1998, the EPA sued Navistar International Transportation, Caterpillar Inc., Cummins Engine Co., Detroit Diesel Corp., Mack, Volvo Truck Corp. and Renault – alleging they had specifically designed the computer programs in their heavy-duty diesel engines to “know” when they were being tested and when they were on the road. The agency claimed the engine makers used time and temperature cut-off points tailored to the U.S. test to create engines that operate cleanly under test conditions only.

Although not admitting fault, those diesel engine manufacturers agreed to a $1 billion out-of-court settlement with the EPA. Essentially, the manufacturers agreed that settling claims made by the Environmental Protection Agency was easier than challenging the agency in court.

The engine makers agreed to individual settlements and signed “consent decrees” requiring the companies to pass a series of supplemental emission tests, starting in 2002, to ensure that diesel engines meet emissions standards in actual operating conditions. EPA’s Web site explains that under “consent decrees reached by the EPA and the seven offending engine makers in 1998, a low-nitrogen oxide rebuild program was established to recoup a portion (about 3 million tons) of the excess emissions.” The program required engine makers to provide “reflash” kits to be installed at the time a defeat-device-equipped engine is rebuilt.

Karen Dworkin of the EPA said Wednesday that 206,000 medium and heavy-duty engines have been re-flashed for low-NOx, including about 9,400 engines in 2008. That means that of the eligible population of engines (about 1 million) only 19 percent have been re-flashed.

“At this point all of the provisions of the consent decree have been or are being implemented,” Dworkin said. “None of the consent decrees have been terminated.”

If 2002 engines being tested by EPA don’t meet emission standards set by the consent decrees, EPA and DOJ could reopen the door to enforcement, EPA officials said Wednesday.

So when are the consent decrees set to expire?

Anne Wick, the EPA’s Vehicle and Engine team leader, told Land Line Magazine that the consent decrees have no specific end date, and rely instead upon each engine manufacturer and ultimately, the court.

Some portions of the consent decrees, such as the low-NOx rebuilds performed by each manufacturer, will end 10 years following the date of the consent decrees’ adoption, she said.

“None of the consent decrees have terminated yet,” Wick said.

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer

Land Line Managing Editor Sandi Soendker contributed to this report.

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