Valley Voices

VW drives past disadvantaged Valley communities to the land of the fat cats

On Friday, April 21, 2017, a judge ordered Volkswagen to pay a $2.8 billion criminal penalty in the United States for cheating on diesel emissions tests.
On Friday, April 21, 2017, a judge ordered Volkswagen to pay a $2.8 billion criminal penalty in the United States for cheating on diesel emissions tests. AP

Volkswagen, one of the single-largest criminal polluters in U.S. history, is once more trying to weasel out of its responsibility to make good for damaging the lungs of low-income residents who were forced to breathe unlawful exhausts spewing from their modified diesel engines.

VW’s $800 million plan to increase zero emission vehicle (ZEV) infrastructure, while welcomed, looks more like it was torn out of the pages of their corporate gameplan than an actual plan to bring the most environmental good to the most environmentally needy.

Spending of this size and scope is welcome and a much needed potential game-changer in California and the nation. Yet, we have a moral and legal obligation to ensure that this money is spent in a way consistent with the state’s values and interests.

That starts with requiring Volkswagen to dedicate funding to disadvantaged communities like Fresno and Bakersfield in the Central Valley, and Brawley, Riverside, and East and South Los Angeles in Southern California.

​In its guidance for how the $800 million should be allocated, California’s air quality regulator –  the California Air Resources Board –  did the right thing. It directed that VW spend more than a third of its ZEV funds in disadvantaged communities, consistent with state law.

But instead of following this very specific guidance, Volkswagen once again put its own interests above California’s. “Charging stations,” VW said in its plan, “will be located first in the areas with the highest anticipated ZEV demand.”

Translation: priority will be given to areas where VW can make the most money, places like Palo Alto, Beverly Hills and La Jolla. VW pays lip service to low-income communities – and the real money goes elsewhere.

While the proposed plan does indicate that a portion of the funding for high-speed highway charging stations will be spent in disadvantaged regions (areas which score in the bottom quartile of the CalEnviroScreen), it fails to make meaningful investments in the communities.

VW instead wants to locate stations along highway exits for fast charging many miles from the actual core of these cities rather than at our grocery stores, shopping centers, and in apartment buildings.

Overall this portion of the plan represents just 10% of VW’s spending and falls far short of CARB’s guidelines, state law and a recent resolution which direct at least 35% of the funds to go to disadvantaged, low-income, underserved and disproportionately impacted communities.

Now it’s up to CARB to hold VWs feet to the fire and compel the company to meet or exceed the guidance that it set forth. CARB must demand that VW rework its plan so that the dollars go where they’re needed most. This time the problem isn’t secret software; instead it’s the gross injustice of putting infrastructure alongside disadvantaged communities, rather than within them.

Some are saying, however, that we just cannot ask VW to do more. But that’s simply ridiculous. CARB negotiated for itself the power to reject VW’s settlement plan in whole or in part. The entire agreement doesn’t need to be scuttled or renegotiated with the Trump administration.

CARB simply has to demand that VW live up to its obligations and hold firm in what it’s asking for. VW will have no choice but to comply or face the uncertainty of a return to federal court.

Like most Californians, I’m glad that VW will spend big money to make up for its corporate crimes and unprecedented wrongdoing.

CARB negotiated a good deal for California. Now, we have to finish the job and make sure that VW spends this money in a way that helps our neediest communities and is consistent with our state’s values.

Dean Florez, who was born and raised in Shafter, is a member of California Air Resource Board. He previously served in the state Senate and Assembly. Twitter: @deanflorez