As VW's payback time arrives in Mass., Berkshire planner wants fair share

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When an automaker's environmental malfeasance came to light three years ago, a clock started ticking on making things right.

The alarm is sounding.

A deadline passed Sept. 1 for those who owned or leased diesel vehicles manufactured by Volkswagen Group of America to take part in a settlement valued at over $10 billion.

But all residents of Massachusetts stand to gain, since VW is compensating states for the environmental harm it created by producing diesel-powered cars secretly designed to under-report emissions.

One Berkshire County leader is questioning whether the region's transit system will get its fair share. Another is urging the state to stay away from buses fueled by natural gas.

By installing "defeat devices" that cheated on emissions tests, VW released smog-causing nitrogen oxide up to 40 times the amounts allowed by law, according to terms of the agreement the company reached with the U.S. Department of Justice and with attorneys general of several states, including Massachusetts.

The state's share of a $2.7 billion national trust fund is $75 million. In hearings this year, the state Department of Environmental Protection took comments on how it should allocate the windfall.

No hearing was held in Berkshire County. And in the first year's allocations, no money is yet identified to flow to environmental projects in the county, though decisions this fall could result in some, according to the DEP.

Nonetheless, the chief of the county's regional planning commission is calling on the DEP to halt its rollout of projects covered by the VW settlement.

Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, is asking the DEP to reconsider its decision to direct money to transit authorities in the Pioneer Valley and on Martha's Vineyard, to the exclusion of the other 13 regional transit groups.

Matuszko also faults the DEP's plan for not detailing all of the steps it will finance through the VW trust payments. Under rules of the settlement, states can spend a third of their allocations in a first year — which comes to roughly $23.5 million for Massachusetts.

"The inclusion of future year mitigation actions are also necessary so that regional equity considerations can be evaluated," Matuszko wrote in an Aug. 16 letter to the DEP.

"No insight is provided regarding the remaining $51.5 million of funding," he wrote.

"Why not wait and see what's going to be available?" Matuszko asked in an interview this week. His commission's executive committee was scheduled to review the issue at its meeting Thursday.

Matuszko also took aim in his letter at the fact that the DEP will allow up to 15 percent of its allocations to cover administrative expenses.

"It seems like a high amount for administration," he said in an interview last week.

Matuszko notes in his letter that in the first-year plan outlined by the DEP, administration costs would come to $3,525,000. That amount is $1.1 million more than the agency's annual budget line item for statewide permitting and compliance work.

"Existing agency resources should be utilized to administer these funds so that the maximum amount of mitigation benefit can occur," he wrote.

Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, said she backs the DEP's support for electric buses and wider access to vehicle charging stations.

"Which we would strongly support," she said. "We did not want them ever considering natural gas buses. That's not off the table, but it should be. We should be electrifying buses as we modernize our electric grid."

Winn also expressed concern that emissions levels are on the rise in the state.

State's timeline

States have 10 years to spend up to 80 percent of the VW settlement, then five more to spend the last 20 percent.

In its draft plan on use of VW money, the DEP says the trust funds give the state a chance to offset damage from the carmaker's wrongdoing.

"[Nitrogen oxide] contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter, both of which are linked to short and long-term respiratory and cardiovascular health effects," the draft plan says. Health maladies include development of childhood asthma. "Environmentally, [nitrogen oxide] emissions contribute to global warming, acid rain formation, and detrimental nutrient overloading in waterways."

In all, VW produced 590,000 cars in the 2009-2016 model years that contained the "cheat" devices. They included 2- and 3-liter engines under the Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche brands.

The $2.7 billion trust is designed to reduce the production of nitrogen oxide pollution by the same amount that resulted from the company's fraud.

First year

According to the DEP, the state's use of the VW money in the first year will focus on buying electric transit buses in two regions and the expansion of electric vehicle charging infrastructure across the state.

Meantime, the DEP will take suggestions on other actions eligible for funding under the settlement. The agency also says it will push electrification of the state's transportation system and work to "promote equitable geographic distribution across the state."

The DEP also pledges, in its draft plan, to support projects that benefit "environmental justice populations."

Those are defined by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs on economic, racial and language grounds using Census data. Areas in Berkshire County designated as "environmental justice" neighborhoods include parts of Adams, Becket, Great Barrington, Lenox, North Adams, Pittsfield and Sheffield.

Of the initial $23.5 million, $11 million will go to buy eight electric transit buses for the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority and five for the Martha's Vineyard Transit Authority.

The DEP said the two transit authorities were selected for the first year "based on their ability to procure buses in state fiscal year 2019."

In defense of that $11 million allocation, the agency notes that it heard appeals during the hearings to back electric bus expansion in "environmental justice" neighborhoods in order to cut vehicle pollution as a way to ease triggers for asthma in urban areas.

Another $5 million will go toward the installation of electric vehicle supply equipment and $7.5 million for related projects not yet pinpointed.

Those projects will be selected from among proposals to be solicited this fall by the DEP.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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