General Motors reluctantly agreed Thursday to recall 470,000 Cadillacs to remove a “defeat device” that caused them to release three times more polluting emissions than the law allows.
In what the Justice Department said was the first court-ordered recall and the largest automobile case brought under the Clean Air Act, GM must pay an $11 million fine - the second-largest civil penalty assessed under the act.
The Detroit company also must spend up to $34 million on anti-pollution programs and to fix the recalled 1991-1995 models, including high-powered Sevilles, De Villes, Eldorados and Fleetwoods with 4.9-liter, V-8 engines.
The “device was improperly placed to defeat pollution controls,” Attorney General Janet Reno told a news conference. “It is simply not fair to burden people’s health to improve the sales of automobiles.”
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner said the resulting pollution was enough to blanket downtown Washington with a 10-foot-thick layer of poisonous carbon monoxide, or 2.5 billion cubic feet.
“These devices sacrificed public health and defied the laws that are in place precisely to prevent the long-term health effects caused by carbon monoxide air pollution,” she said in a statement.
The Justice Department said GM in 1991 fixed a stalling problem with a new engine control computer chip that enriched the fuel when the climate control device was on for heating or air conditioning. The “defeat device” overwhelmed the emission controls and spewed up to 10 grams of carbon monoxide a mile, well above the 3.4 grams per mile limit. GM did not fix the problem, using the same system until changes were made for its 1996 models.
Lois Schiffer, assistant attorney general for the environmental and natural resources division, said she believed GM officials were aware the device broke EPA emissions standards and that the company was required by law to disclose that it had modified the vehicles.
The government tests vehicle emissions when the air conditioning and heating systems aren’t running, but vehicles still are not allowed to exceed EPA emission standards during normal driving, which would include turning on the air conditioning and heating.