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State agency wants citizens to weigh in on Volkswagen settlement funds

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Rita Bates of the New Mexico Environment Department encourages associations, businesses and governments to forward ideas to the agency about how to use $18 million to reduce diesel emissions in the state. Bates, at a Thursday meeting in Roswell, says that all sizes of projects from across the state will be considered. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

New Mexico Environment Department officials want business and government leaders as well as interested citizens to give them their ideas on how to spend a pending $18 million settlement from the Volkswagen Group of America.

The money is the state’s portion of a $2.93 billion court settlement Volkswagen is making with the United States to mitigate the environmental damages that resulted from the car manufacturer’s installation of “defeat devices” in vehicles from 2009 to 2015. Those devices enabled vehicles to pass emissions tests but to emit excessive pollutants in normal driving circumstances, thereby violating federal motor vehicle emission standards.
As a result of those devices, a 2011 Jetta produced up to 38 times the emissions allowed, according to information provided by Rita Bates of the Environment Department at a Thursday meeting in Roswell.
The Roswell meeting was the third of six public meetings held by the Environment Department statewide to discuss the settlement funds. Meetings will occur next week in Albuquerque, Farmington and Gallup.
The settlement includes several different parts, including buy-backs of vehicles by Volkswagen, but the $2.93 billion settlement of concern to the state will be administered by an independent trust and will be divided among states, tribal governments and U.S. territories according to how many defective vehicles were sold in their boundaries.
The New Mexico Environment Department is the lead agency among four different state groups involved in managing the settlement funds over the next 15 or so years. It said it will use the $18 million New Mexico expects to receive to mitigate nitrogen oxides emissions, and it intends to do that by replacing the state’s largest producers of those emissions, older diesel engines.

Bates said that the department, under a different federal diesel-emissions reduction program, once funded putting auxiliary power in a truck so that the owner could power the vehicle at night without using the engine.
“You can go down to that small of a project or you can go up to replacing a fleet or looking at a lot of school buses potentially,” said Bates. “So we are going to consider pretty much any kind of project that people send to us.”
The vehicles must be Class 4, weighing 14,000 pounds, up to Class 8 trucks. Also, the older engines cannot be resold but must be decommissioned so that they cannot be reused. Any replacement technology will be considered, Bates said, whether light diesel, natural gas, propane, electric or other fuel or power source.
The state probably will not be ready to accept actual applications for funding for at least 270 days, because some of the details still remain to be worked out in the settlement and states must comply with certification procedures to be beneficiaries of funds. But, in the meantime, the department wants as many ideas as it can receive.
“I see these meetings as sort of a conversation between us and you all because this will help us see what kind of interest there is preliminarily and also give you some idea of what is the potential,” Bates said.
She added that the department has been doing diesel-emission reduction projects for nine years, but $18 million is more money than it has had during that period.
“We are hoping we have some interesting projects all over the state,” she said, “so if you want the money, apply, once that becomes available.”
People can submit ideas and comments or request meetings with Environment Department representatives by sending email to vw.info@state.nm.us or by calling 505-476-4300.
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.