Chicago Tribune: Who Gets the VW Money?

Who Gets the VW Money?
By Mary Wisniewski

The state’s Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release a first-round proposal on Monday about how to spend $108.7 million from a national settlement Volkswagen reached with the U.S. government over the German automaker’s emissions scandal — and it’s already raising eyebrows.

That’s according to environmental advocates, though the timing could not immediately be confirmed by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which has the job of putting a plan together and distributing the funds. Those who’ve been briefed on the so-called draft proposal say they’re not too happy, because the agency is not holding public hearings to discuss how the money should be spent, like other Midwestern states have done.

“People in Illinois were harmed by the pollution that resulted in the VW settlement,” said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, who learned about the plan from IEPA Director Alec Messina last week. “By taking away the opportunity for people to comment in public hearings, it takes away their chance to participate and say how they should be paid back for what was done to their health and the environment.”

VW agreed to pay more than $15 billion in settlements after admitting to installing secret software that allowed U.S. vehicles to emit up to 40 times the legally allowable level of pollution. Some of that money is going to states for clean-air programs.

Environmental groups want 15 percent of Illinois’ share of the money, or about $16.3 million, to go to plug-in charging stations for electric vehicles. They want the rest to go toward replacing diesel school and public transit buses with electric versions, to reduce diesel pollution.

But the IEPA instead plans to spend up to 15 percent of the money on administrative costs, and most of the rest on “off-road” technology, Walling said. This could mean rail or boats. A small percentage of the total could go to electric school buses, Walling said.

Walling said she was concerned that some money will go to private interests and/or replacing older diesel vehicle engines with newer ones. While newer engines would be less polluting, this would not cut nearly as much diesel pollution as buying electric buses and providing electric charging infrastructure, advocates argue.

“It provides no structural kick in the pants,” said Allen Grosboll, legislative director for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, an advocacy group. He said Messina told environmental groups last May that the agency would have public hearings around the state.

But Walling now says there’s no commitment to public hearings.

Other states have gathered public comments and held hearings for more than a year and are close to finalizing their plans — Minnesota, for example, had 13 public hearings, Environmental Law and Policy Center officials said.

Kim Biggs, spokeswoman with the Illinois EPA, countered that the agency conducted a “very open process,” which has included meeting with interested parties upon request. She said the agency also will be doing a survey to get feedback.

“The agency has provided for a slightly different approach than some other states all of whom vary in approach,” Biggs said.

Once the IEPA submits its final plan, it can start accessing settlement money in 30 days, and it can be spent within 10 years, said Policy Center representatives.



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