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EPA files suit against Mack

June 17, 1998|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against Mack Trucks Inc. charging it has been selling diesel engines that pass Environmental Protection Agency tests but emit illegal air pollutant levels during highway driving.

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The Allentown, Pa.-based company, claiming its heavy-duty truck engines don't violate the Clean Air Act, has sought a federal court's protection from EPA actions it claims could force it out of business and put thousands out of work.

Mack Trucks, a subsidiary of Renault S.A., employs about 4,800 workers, about 1,200 of them in its Hagerstown engine and transmission manufacturing plant on Pennsylvania Avenue.

At the center of the controversy is the Mack engine's injection timing system, which the EPA contends is designed in such a way that illegally high levels of nitrogen oxide emitted on the highway don't show up on the federal emission test.

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Mack contends that while the systems might have the "incidental effect" of increasing nitrogen oxide levels under highway driving conditions, they're designed to increase fuel efficiency.

The engines operate on the road the same way they do during the test and they are not altered in any way after testing, according to company spokesman John Mies at Mack headquarters in Allentown.

Last week, the EPA orally informed Mack that it intended to file a lawsuit that would seek "significant penalties" - including crippling fines and refusal of certifications needed to produce engines, Mies said.

Such action "could have a severe and long-lasting impact on employment," he said.

"If they took away the certifications, we'd be forced to shut down production," Mies said. "It would affect all production at all Mack plants because we wouldn't be able to build trucks if we're not building engines."

Mack Trucks made a preemptive strike against the federal agency's threats of costly penalties for alleged Clean Air Act violations by filing a complaint in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia on Monday, he said.

The civil complaint challenges the EPA's claims of Clean Air Act violation and asks for protection from the threatened actions.

The Department of Justice responded to the move by filing its lawsuit against the company in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., the same day, according to a press release issued Tuesday afternoon by the agency.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the EPA, alleges Mack has been selling unlawful heavy-duty diesel engines equipped with devices that defeat their emission control systems, resulting in illegal amounts of nitrogen oxide emissions, according to the press release.

Nitrogen oxide is an air pollutant that contributes to smog, acid rain and increased levels of lung disease, according to the release.

The lawsuit charges that Mack engine software that controls fuel injection timing causes the engine to emit excessive amounts of nitrogen oxide when running on the open road but is designed to mask those emission levels on the federal emissions test, according to the release.

"Mack's failure to disclose to EPA the existence of these defeat devices obstructed the EPA's ability to protect public welfare and the environment before the engines were sold," according to the release.

Mack in its complaint contends the EPA has known that Mack and other leading U.S. heavy-duty diesel engine makers have included the injection timing systems in the engines "for at least several years."

Yet the EPA hasn't changed its test, designed to test emissions under urban conditions, made any relevant rules or indicated in any way they might be unlawful until six months ago, according to the complaint.

The Department of Justice lawsuit asks the court to stop Mack from selling engines with the devices, to order the company to recall and fix such engines already in use and to require it to take steps to offset harm to public health and the environment, according to the release.

It also seeks "civil penalties" for the violations, according to the release.

Department of Justice spokeswoman Jennifer Rose said Tuesday evening that she didn't know what those penalties are and had yet to receive a copy of the lawsuit.

According to Mack's complaint, the federal agency threatened to fine the company $25,000 or more per engine.

Mack's Hagerstown plant produces 168 engines a day.

The Mack engine systems being targeted are fundamentally the same as they've been over the last five years, during which the engines have passed the required EPA emissions test, according to the complaint.

"Obviously, we think we have a very strong case," Mies said.

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