Indiana seeks public input on how to spend $41 million VW settlement

(INDYSTAR.com) - Gov. Eric Holcomb has created an 11-member committee that will determine how Indiana distributes its nearly $41 million share of the Volkswagen settlement. 

The executive order, announced Thursday, appoints a Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust Fund Committee. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management also was named the beneficiary of the trust fund and will take on administrative duties.

This is the latest step in a lengthy legal process taking place in all 50 states, as well as U.S. territories and tribes. To receive the funds, states must create plans that demonstrate how they will spend the money on any of a small group of eligible uses. 

“Settlement funds will help protect Hoosiers' health and the environment, while providing an opportunity for investment in projects with the potential to transform transportation markets and enhance our communities,” said IDEM Commissioner Bruno Pigott in a statement. 

The 11-member committee is made up of administrators from across state government, as well as five Indiana residents appointed by the governor. Representing the state are IDEM's Pigott; Joe McGuinness, commissioner of the Indiana Department of Transportation; Tristan Vance, director of the Indiana Office of Energy Development; Danielle McGrath, vice president of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation; Melissa Rekeweg, interim director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture; and Jody Peacock, vice president of Ports of Indiana.

The governor also appointed the following Indiana residents to the task force: Beverly Gard, former Indiana state senator; Kay Nelson, director of environmental affairs for the Northwest Indiana Forum; Bill Beranek, president of the Indiana Environmental Institute; central Indiana business owner and philanthropist Reggie Jones; and Brent Dickson, a retired Indiana Supreme Court Justice and adjunct professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis.

IDEM also announced that it would begin to take public comment on a draft framework for distributing Indiana's share of settlement funds. The proposal does not present specific projects that might be funded by the money, but instead offers four categories that bundle eligible uses for the funds.

The first category would focus on updating diesel powered equipment at airports or ports and replacing fleets like school or transit buses and freight trucks with cleaner vehicles. The second category would send funds to the state's Dieselwise program, which matches federal funds for reducing diesel emissions through engine and vehicle replacements, exhaust after treatments, and other adaptive technologies. The third category would send money towards zero-emission infrastructure, such as charging stations. The final category would apply a small portion of the funds towards administration fees. The percentage of funds that will be distributed to each category will be determined by responses to IDEM's request for information.

The nearly $41 million Indiana is set to receive is its share of a $2.7 billion settlement federal regulators reached with Volkswagen after it was learned the German automaker cheated emissions tests for more than half a decade. The company was found to be in violation of the Clean Air Act when it was discovered that Volkswagen had used "defeat devices" on their diesel vehicles in order to pass emissions tests.

 About a half-million cars in the U.S. were allowed to emit pollutants "at levels up to 40 times the standard" set by the EPA. Nitrogen oxides, or NOx gases, are a byproduct of burning diesel fuel and have the potential to cause asthma and other respiratory health issues. The mitigation trust fund is meant to address those NOx emissions.

The portion of the settlement that will be managed by IDEM and the task force is meant to offset the impacts of NOx gases, which is why the uses for the money are limited to programs and technology that would reduce such emissions. Other parts of the settlement were targeted at consumers who had bought the compromised vehicles.

IDEM says that it will continue to update its website as it receives public comment and develops a draft mitigation plan, and will provide updates by email for people who sign up. Those who wish to submit public comment should do so by email, according to the agency's website. The task force will also hold a series of public meetings throughout the state.

IDEM drew criticism late last month for its lack of transparency in the way it was seeking public input on how to use the funds. Whereas other states had held numerous public meetings and had released detailed drafts of their mitigation plans, Indiana was one of only a handful of states who, until recently, did not even have a website describing the funds.

A spokesperson for the agency told IndyStar that IDEM Commissioner Pigott had been instead meeting one-on-one with stakeholders since coming into office in January.

Emily Hopkins covers the environment for the Star. Contact her at (317) 444-6409 or emily.hopkins@indystar.com. Follow her on Twitter: @_thetextfiles. IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

INDYSTAR.com


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