Chicago Tribune: ELPC’s Susan Mudd Says Illinois Volkswagen Money Should Include Electric School Buses

Waiting on VW Money
June 26, 2017
By Mary Wisniewski

Illinois, a state notorious for financial problems, is due to get some non-taxpayer money — $108.7 million from a national settlement with carmaker Volkwagen over the German automaker’s emissions scandal.

But Illinois is behind other states in soliciting public input on how to spend the money, which is supposed to go to clean air projects. And some environmental groups are worried that Illinois is taking too long to find out what people want and come up with a plan.

“I think this should be started as soon as possible,” said Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. “I think the sooner the better, the more people who get to participate the better.”

Midwestern states ahead of Illinois include Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Iowa. Minnesota, for example, has already hosted three public input sessions and is accepting comments through Friday.

“Those states are ready to take advantage of the funds as soon as they become available,” said Susan Mudd, senior policy advocate with the Environmental Law and Policy Center. She said Illinois does not risk losing the money but does risk causing delays.

Illinois EPA officials responded that they are waiting to be named as the legal beneficiary for the money by the trustee before having public hearings. Being named legal beneficiary will happen after the trustee names an “effective trust date,” which is the day when the process to qualify for funding gets going and deadlines kick in for states to submit plans.

“Illinois EPA will be seeking public input before completing our mitigation plan, but we have not decided on the method(s),” said IEPA Associate Director Heather Nifong in an email.

Asked why Illinois has chosen to wait on getting public input while other states have gone ahead, Nifong said in an interview, “Every state should choose their own path forward.”

The money is due to come from a multibillion-dollar settlement with Volkswagen. The automaker admitted in 2015 that it had installed secret software that allowed U.S. vehicles to emit up to 40 times the legally allowable level of pollution. VW agreed to more than $15 billion in settlements, and some of that money is going to states for clean-air programs.

Late last month, a coalition of environmental groups, including the Environmental Council, the Citizens Utility Board, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Law and Policy Center, met with Illinois EPA Director Alec Messina to discuss the settlement and make suggestions on how the money should be used.

In a written statement, the groups recommended using 15 percent of the VW money, or about $16 million, to deploy light-duty plug-in electric vehicle charging stations. The rest of the money should be spent on zero-emission vehicles, such as electric school and transit buses, the statement said.

Katie Miller, principal at Alexander Graham Bell Elementary School in the North Center neighborhood, is hoping for electric school buses.

“We have several children who suffer from asthma and other related respiratory illnesses,” Miller said. She said the bus companies try to work with the school to limit bus idling, but “it’s not a perfect system. … An electric bus would really resolve a lot of these issues.”

Nifong said Illinois is talking with stakeholders, such as environmental groups, on an informal, ongoing basis and continues to listen to people who are “eager to share their ideas on how the mitigation funds should be spent.”

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