Settlement Involves Illegal Emission Control 'Defeat Devices' Sold for Autos

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and EPA reached a landmark settlement requiring Casper's Electronics, of Mundelein, Ill., to pay a penalty and stop selling devices that allow cars to release excess levels of pollution into the environment, in violation of the Clean Air Act (CAA).

The July 10 settlement, the first of its kind, requires Casper's to stop selling electronic devices known as oxygen sensor simulators or "O2 Sims," recall the devices and pay more than $74,000 in civil penalties to the federal government. An O2 Sim tricks an automobile engine's computer into sensing a properly functioning emission control system, even when the catalytic converter is missing or faulty. These "after-market" sensors are considered illegal "defeat devices" under the CAA.

Casper's has sold approximately 44,000 defeat devices through retailers and from its Web site since 2001. EPA estimates that the increased emissions from installation of these devices over the life of the vehicles are 7,400 tons of hydrocarbons, 347,000 tons of carbon monoxide,and 6,000 tons of nitrogen oxide. This is equivalent to the emissions produced by a half-million cars with fully operational emission control systems over their lifetimes.

"Emission control defeat devices, like those used here, risk harming human health and the environment by allowing huge increases in pollutants from motor vehicles," said Ronald J. Tenpas, acting assistant attorney general for DOJ's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "The Justice Department will continue to vigorously enforce all of the provisions of the Clean Air Act -- including its rule against these devices -- against violators, including those using the Internet to illegally sell their wares."

An oxygen sensor simulator sends a false electronic signal to the car's engine control computer, preventing the "check engine" or "malfunction indicator" light from illuminating. The malfunction light, part of a vehicle's on-board diagnostic (OBD) system, alerts the driver when there is a problem with the emission control system.

Casper's O2 Sims allowed vehicle owners to remove or disable the catalytic converter without the OBD system detecting the problem and turning on the check engine light. The CAA prohibits the manufacture and sale of any devices, such as Casper's O2 Sims, that bypass or defeat required pollution control equipment on motor vehicles. Cars and trucks with defeat devices can emit up to 50 times the amount of harmful pollution emitted by vehicles with properly functioning emission controls.

EPA is currently investigating other automobile parts manufacturers and sellers that may also be making and selling similar products. The agency has found that some companies are advertising O2 Sims and other defeat devices as a way to enhance a car's performance. In addition, some companies include in their advertisements a claim that the devices are for "off-road use only", despite clearly marketing the devices for on-road vehicles.

Air emissions from cars include harmful pollutants such as non-methane hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen, key ingredients in the production of ozone, a major component of urban smog. Tailpipe emissions also include carbon monoxide, which impairs breathing. Both ozone and carbon monoxide are especially harmful to children, people with asthma and the elderly.

The recall required by the settlement requires Casper's to implement a mandatory repurchase program under which it must notify its customers that Casper's will buy back any O2 Sims sold by Casper's or its distributors, and create and implement a reporting system to ensure future compliance.

Both the complaint and the consent decree were filed on July 12 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. The consent decree is subject to a 30-day public comment period and subsequent court approval, and is available for viewing at DOJ's Web site:

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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