Federal government must prosecute Volkswagen for cheating, environment groups say
|Toronto Star 22 Jun 2017 at 07:57|
Canada’s government must stop idling and finally prosecute Volkswagen for using secret software to cheat emissions tests, three leading environmental groups have said in strongly written letters to the federal environment minister.
It has been nearly two years since the government announced it was investigating the German automaker for allegedly installing “defeat devices” in its diesel vehicles to circumvent environmental standards. That investigation is still ongoing.
In the same period, regulators in the United States secured billions of dollars in penalties and settlements after the carmaker pleaded guilty to a long-running conspiracy that deceived customers and duped emissions standards.
Roughly 105,000 of those same types of cars — Volkswagen and Audi vehicles with 2.0-litre diesel engines from model years 2009 to 2015 — were sold or leased in Canada. (Audi is owned by Volkswagen.)
The environmental advocates, which are critical of Environment and Climate Change Canada’s handling of the government’s probe, asked Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to take charge.
“It would be a gross abdication of the minister’s duty if Canada were not to investigate and prosecute VW as the U.S. has done, and extract from it a substantial penalty, the proceeds of which could be used for the good of Canada’s people, environment and industry,” say the letters to McKenna, dated June 14.
The letters sent to Ottawa last week call the “slowness” of the government’s current investigation “both unimpressive and unacceptable.”
A spokesperson for McKenna said it would be inappropriate to comment “as there is an ongoing investigation.”
A Volkswagen spokesperson said the company is co-operating with the environment ministry’s investigation and it would be inappropriate to comment on the probe itself.
Under Canadian environmental law, the letters sent last week to the minister are considered a formal call for the minister to launch an investigation into an alleged offence.
But an environment ministry spokesperson said if McKenna heeds the call to launch her own investigation, it is expected that ministry staff would carry out that work for her.
The spokesperson said ministry staff are already working hard on the ongoing Volkswagen investigation.
These kinds of investigations “are often highly complex and we must be certain that we have gathered and analyzed all of the necessary evidence and supporting information before any charges are filed,” the spokesperson said.
The letters are signed by the executive directors of Environmental Defence, Quebec-based Équiterre, and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.
Sidney Ribaux, executive director of Équiterre, said it’s important that Environment Canada is not seen to be dropping the ball in investigating the highly publicized case.
“If companies see that (Volkswagen is) getting away with it . . . what kind of message does that send to the rest of the businesses that follow the regulation?” Ribaux said.
“If you have rules you’re not enforcing, they’re not real rules.”
The so-called defeat device in these vehicles meant cars met standards during emissions testing, but pumped out up to 35 times the permitted levels of harmful nitrogen oxides while on the open road, according to Volkswagen’s plea agreement with the U.S. government.
The Canadian prosecution can piggyback on the work of the United States, as the admissions included in the company’s guilty plea can be used here, said Amir Attaran, a law professor with the Ecojustice legal clinic at the University of Ottawa who helped draft the letters to McKenna.
In a statement to the Star, an environment ministry spokesperson said VW Canada is a separate legal entity from its parent company in Germany and U.S. affiliates, and VW Canada “has not publicly admitted to being guilty of an alleged offence in Canada.” The American court settlements and fines “are not simply replicated in Canada,” the spokesperson added.
The U.S. extracted up to from Volkswagen in connection with the diesel scandal. Several billions of dollars will go toward pollution mitigation and building infrastructure for zero emission vehicles.
That sort of money could go a long way in Canada, said Environmental Defence’s Tim Gray, one of the letter writers.
Any penalties that might result from an environmental prosecution in Canada would likely go to a fund that directs court-awarded fines to projects that restore the natural environment and conserve wildlife.
In April, courts in Ontario and Quebec approved a $2.1-billion settlement in a class-action lawsuit that offered cash payments to the 105,000 Canadian customers. The settlement was not an admission of liability, Volkswagen said at the time in a statement.
Volkswagen Canada agreed to pay an additional $15-million penalty resulting from an investigation by the federal Competition Bureau, which said the companies misled consumers with false environmental marketing claims.
Earlier this year, Volkswagen Canada resumed selling some of these scandal-plagued diesel cars at dealerships across the country despite the vehicles being under investigation. The models have updated emissions software and will also receive new hardware at a later date.
The carmaker had received approval in the U.S. from the Environmental Protection Agency to resume selling certain 2015 diesel models that had been mothballed on dealers’ lots in that country.
The company notified the Canadian government before it resumed selling the vehicles here.
In their letters, however, the environmental groups say the permission by the U.S. regulator to resume selling in that country did not mean 2015 models on Canadian lots could be sold, and accused VW and its dealers of dumping cars onto the market with “an incomplete, software-only fix.”
Federal government officials told the Star in May that they are “looking into the matter to determine the most appropriate course of action.”
As Volkswagen had voluntarily stopped sales of these vehicles in Canada in 2015, the company is not breaking any government orders or directions by resuming sales, a ministry spokesperson said.