Illinois’ Plan For $109 Million Haul From Volkswagen Emissions Scandal Draws Fire

Critics say the state is keeping the public in the dark and trying to speed a process that they fear may ultimately benefit corporate interests more than people sickened by air pollution.

This story was co-published with the Chicago Sun-Times.

Rauner Administration plans to divvy up a nearly $109 million anti-pollution windfall from a legal settlement with Volkswagen are taking fire from an array of critics who fear the process has been commandeered by business interests. Environmentalists, public health groups and some state lawmakers claim the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has shut the public out of talks on how to spend the money while drafting a plan largely with input from big industry.

Instead of earmarking settlement cash to cut down on vehicle emissions, the EPA recently released an overarching plan that instead aims to reduce harmful emissions from trains, ferries and tugboats.

Environmental advocates say spending the money on car emissions has a more direct tie to problems posed by the Volkswagen case. The German auto manufacturer pleaded guilty to criminal charges of manipulating its diesel powered vehicles so they could cheat emissions tests in the U.S and illegally foul air.

“This process was conducted behind closed doors with meetings only with lobbyists and special interests rather than meeting with the public [which] was harmed,” said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.

Volkswagen is paying billions of dollars in fines and civil settlements tied to the scandal. Of that $2.9 billion is earmarked to help Illinois and other states reduce air pollution, with the share going to Illinois by far the largest of any Midwest state.

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Walling and other critics of the state EPA under Gov. Bruce Rauner also complain it has scheduled no public meetings to gauge reaction to its draft spending plan. The agency is, however, accepting written public comments through April 13.

Angela Tin, Springfield-based vice president of environmental health for the American Lung Association, said the Illinois approach stands in stark contrast to that taken in Midwestern states like Ohio and Indiana that have held multiple public meetings to field input over use of their shares of the VW settlement money.

“The other states have been a lot more active” engaging the public and being transparent, she added.

Emails obtained by the Better Government Association through an open records request show state EPA Director Alec Messina has held meetings about how to spend the settlement money with lobbyists and other representatives of large companies, including construction equipment maker Caterpillar, delivery service giant United Parcel Service and garbage hauler Waste Management. Messina also has met with some environmental groups to discuss the matter, the emails show.

Representatives of those companies said they were explaining in talks with Messina their uses of technology to cut down on air pollution.

“We have been very aggressive meeting with people throughout the process,” Messina said in an interview.

Critics, however, contend the sounding board process was hardly inclusive.

“The only thing informing the plan Alec and company put together were insider meetings by special interest groups,” said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs at Chicago-based Respiratory Health Association. “The health groups haven’t been involved because they don’t know what the Hell is going on.”

Pending legislation in Springfield aims to slow down the EPA as it moves toward a spending plan and force it to be more transparent about its actions.

“You have all this money coming in from the VW settlement, and we want to make sure there is public discourse,” said state Sen. Cristina Castro (D-Elgin), a co-sponsor of two bills related to the VW settlement. “We felt the Rauner Administration wasn’t doing a good job with transparency. It looked like the plan was hastily put together.”

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The EPA draft spending plan proposes to spend up to $71 million — 65 percent of the settlement total — on so-called non-road projects such as the purchase of newer locomotive trains, ferries and tugboats, all sources of air pollution largely through diesel fuel emissions. That plan has gained praise from the Illinois Manufacturers Association and the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.

The Illinois EPA’s focus on locomotives and commercial boats is sound because they contribute heavily to air pollution now, said Mark Denzler, vice president and chief operating officer of the IMA. Environmental groups, he said, “want to steer money toward their preferred pet projects.”

The draft plan also envisions spending up to $22 million on cleaner fuel options for freight trucks and school and transit buses, with another $11 million designated for electric school buses.

“This is a balanced approach,” said Messina. He added that the plan leaves open options for cleaner diesel or electric vehicles. “We are not picking out one fuel over another.”

Some environmental groups prefer more of the money be spent on charging stations for electric vehicles and other efforts to cut down on auto emissions.

But state EPA officials are clearly not in favor of building out an infrastructure for more electric car charging stations, which some advocates say is a step toward encouraging more electric cars.

A spokesman for Metra said the transit agency is likely to pursue settlement money to replace or retrofit older diesel powered trains, with the goal of reducing the amount of pollution they create.

Janet McCabe, a former U.S. EPA official said federal officials tried to tailor the state awards from the Volkswagen settlement so the money wouldn’t be used for purposes other than combating pollution.

“Big complicated settlements involve a lot of money and a lot of damage,” said McCabe. “You want to design the settlements so they go toward the area of damage.”

That’s one of the concerns.

“Everyone is lining up for the money,” said the American Lung Association’s Tin. “You have to keep an eye on this.”

 
About the Author
  • Brett Chase

    Brett Chase investigates waste, fraud and corruption in a number of areas, including the environment, housing, health care and transportation. A former reporter and editor for Crain's Chicago Business, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Bloomberg News, Chase has covered government and business for more than 20 years.