State agency seeks feedback on VW settlement money

MARSHALL — Minnesota is expected to receive $47 million from a federal settlement with automaker Volkswagen. The task now facing the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is what to do with the money.

MPCA representatives were in Marshall on Monday night as part of a public listening session on how to use the settlement funds. The settlement money can only be used to help cut back on pollution from diesel emissions in the state, but MPCA staff said they wanted to hear people’s feedback on how that should be done.

“We really want to make sure our plan meets the needs and wants of Minnesotans,” said Amanda Jarrett Smith, of the MPCA.

The federal government took Volkswagen to court in 2016 for violations of the Clean Air Act, after it was found that the automaker was cheating on emissions tests for its diesel vehicles. The vehicles released higher amounts of air pollutants like nitrogen oxides, MPCA staff said.

“It’s got some negative health effects,” said Rocky Sisk, of the MPCA. Nitrogen oxides can cause lung irritation, and can also contribute to environmental problems like acid rain.

Sisk said the Volkswagen emissions violation affected 9,300 vehicles across Minnesota.

Volkswagen agreed to a settlement of more than $14 billion, which will be paid out nationwide over the next 10 years. Minnesota’s share of the settlement is $47 million, MPCA staff said.

That settlement money goes to the state, and not individual Volkswagen owners, and there are limits on what it can be used for.

“It can only do two things,” Sisk said. The settlement money can be used to replace old diesel vehicles with newer, cleaner ones. Or, up to 15 percent of the settlement money can be spent on electric vehicle charging stations.

Sisk said the MPCA is working on a mitigation plan for diesel emissions. They hope to start taking requests for proposals to use the funds starting in 2018. Private and public entities would be able to apply for funding to help with emission reduction projects.

Even with limits on how the settlement funds can be used, there are still a lot of options, Jarrett Smith said. The MPCA needs to figure out what kinds of diesel emissions to focus on — for example, the diesel switcher locomotives used in rail yards emit more pollution than school buses. The agency also needs to decide whether to focus on cutting overall emissions, or helping areas or groups of people who are disproportionately affected by air pollution.

At the listening session, several members of the public voiced support for using the settlement funds to help replace diesel buses, especially school buses.

Reducing emissions from school buses would help protect children’s health, they said.

Audience members also said greater Minnesota should not be left out when considering where to spend the settlement money.

More information about the Volkswagen settlement in Minnesota is available online, at www.pca.state.mn.us/air/volkswagen-settlement. Members of the public can also take a survey or leave feedback on how to use the settlement funds.

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