Two years ago, Volkswagen (VW) was caught red-handed selling cars with software that surreptitiously turned off the pollution control equipment of over 11 million of its vehicles around the world. This caused them to release much more pollution than had been claimed to regulators and to vehicle purchasers. Over 105,000 of these cars were sold in Canada.
Since then, many governments around the world have successfully prosecuted the company, obtained guilty pleas, and extracted billions of dollars in fines. These fines have been used to help clean up the environment, install electric vehicle charging stations, or for other government programs. Canada, however, is an exception to all this.
The federal Ministry of Environment and Climate Change has “opened an investigation.” Yet, it will not say what, if any, plans they have to make VW pay for dumping cars on the market capable of producing up to 35 times the legal level for nitrogen oxides (NOx). NOx is composed of two air pollutants: nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and nitric oxide (NO). NO2 is a gas that is very harmful to the lungs of humans, while both can be transformed in the air into ground level ozone and fine particulate matter, the two main components of smog.
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) estimated that 21,000 Canadians die each year from heart and lung illnesses brought on by breathing polluted air. Vehicles are a major source of air pollution in Canada, particularly in large urban centres and along high volume traffic corridors. The Medical Officers of Health in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) have estimated that traffic-related air pollution is responsible for 700 premature deaths and over 2,800 hospital admissions for heart and lung conditions, per year, in the GTHA alone. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have linked VW’s cheating with 1,200 premature deaths in Europe.
So what can be done?
On August 2, Environmental Defence and our partner organization, Canadian Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), as represented by Ecojustice, took legal action against the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change for refusing to proceed with our request to investigate VW’s emissions fraud, as is required under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA).
Our action states that:
- VW unlawfully imported noncompliant cars;
- VW unlawfully applied the National Emissions Mark on noncompliant diesel cars and sold those cars;
- VW provided false and misleading information to the federal government; and
- VW and its local dealers unlawfully resumed sales of 2015 model cars after only completing a “half-fix” to the emissions system.
We are very concerned that if VW is not charged, even when the harm and deliberate nature of their violations are well known, that a “go ahead and pollute” message is being sent to corporations in Canada.
This is not the first time that major polluting activity has gone unaddressed by Environment Canada. Ongoing toxic leakage from tar sands tailings ponds has also been ignored, even while scientists widely acknowledge that it is occurring.
Canadians need to have confidence that the laws passed by Parliament to protect human health and the environment will be enforced. They also need to know that companies that violate these laws will be forced to clean up and pay fines set at a level that will deter other potential violators. Anything else makes a mockery of our legal system and marks Canada as an easy mark for polluters.