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Mack suit aimed at all truck manufacturers

June 19, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER and KERRY LYNN FRALEYs

The federal government's lawsuit against Mack Trucks Inc. is part of an even broader environmental regulation issue that affects heavy-duty truck manufacturers nationwide, industry observers said.

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"Mack is not in this alone. We are all watching it like a hawk," said Jim Winsor, executive editor of Heavy Duty Trucking Magazine in Wayne, Pa.

The lawsuit alleges that the Mack engine's injection timing device is designed in such a way that illegally high levels of nitrogen oxide emitted on the highway don't show up on the federal emissions test.

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.

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

Winsor, who watches the trucking industry with a particular interest in Mack, predicted the case will be a benchmark for the industry because all heavy-duty diesel engine producers use similar methods to control engine emissions.

"This is a big deal," said Harry Stoffer, a reporter with Automotive News, an industry trade newspaper.

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

"We think the suit is unconscionable and totally without merit," said Mies from Mack headquarters in Allentown, Pa.

Mies said the company believes it will prevail in court, but that there is much at risk.

Although the company has not placed a dollar amount on the penalties sought by the government, which include engine recalls, fines and other steps it must take to prevent pollution, it is believed to be a significant amount.

"If the government got everything it is asking for, we would be out of business," Mies said.

The battle began last year when the EPA began investigating numerous vehicle manufacturers over allegations that they have been making engines equipped with devices that alter emission control systems, Stoffer said.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, a manufacturer is prohibited from selling new motor vehicles or engines equipped with devices designed to alter the emission control system.

To get decent fuel efficiency and performance on the highway, you have to advance the fuel injection timing, the process targeted by the EPA, Winsor said.

"This is nothing new. It's a fact of life," Winsor said.

The Justice Department tried to negotiate a settlement with Mack similar to consent agreements it reached last week with American Honda Motor Co. and Ford Motor Co., Stoffer said. Other companies are still negotiating with the government, he said.

But the government, emboldened by deals that brought in $17.1 million from Honda and $7.8 million from Ford, took a firm stance in its negotiations with Mack, asking for $25,000 for each heavy duty engine built since 1994, Stoffer said.

He estimated that would come to more than $1.5 billion.

"The race was on to the courthouse," Stoffer said.

Mack filed its own lawsuit against the government on Monday in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, challenging the EPA's allegations and contending that the injection-timing system performs the same on the test as it does on the highway. It also seeks protection from the threatened action.

Winsor, who has been watching Mack Trucks for 41 years, said the EPA emissions tests, based on 1984 regulations written to focus on urban and suburban pollution concerns, have not kept up with engine design changes and tests engines only under urban conditions.

If and when the EPA develops a test to consider highway conditions, Winsor predicted, it will "set the industry on its ear because it's going to be a real negative in fuel economy."

Having the fuel injection system operate on the highway as it does during urban driving conditions would be like putting a clothespin on the nose of a jogger who needs more oxygen than normal while running, Winsor said.

The EPA's attack on fuel injection systems comes at a time when the heavy-duty trucking industry is experiencing a boom, he said. Many plants are operating as much as seven days a week to meet demand.

Mack will be in a worse position than its competitors because it builds almost all of the engines it puts in its trucks, while other heavy-duty companies buy them from other sources, Winsor said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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