Why emissions testers are still approving VW cars rigged to cheat the test

The cars emit harmful chemicals up to 40 times the legal U.S. limit

A diesel Passat is photographed at the Al Johnson Volkswagen Volvo dealership on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, in Dalton, Ga.

While a whirlwind of criticism and global fallout engulfed Volkswagen on Tuesday, practical questions surfaced, like how to treat the company's newer-model diesel cars - the ones that cheat emissions tests - during mandatory local testing.

And there's no word from state or federal government officials on how to handle the issue.

photo A diesel Passat is photographed at the Al Johnson Volkswagen Volvo dealership on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, in Dalton, Ga.

Stephen Foster, Tennessee program manager at state-contracted emissions test firm Opus Inspection, said Tuesday there had been no directive from the state to treat affected diesel VWs and Audis any different than before news of the rigged emissions programs.

"To my knowledge, there have been no changes," he said. "We're just testing these vehicles. That's what we're contracted to do."

Until officials at either the state or federal level pass down some kind of word, local emissions testers have little choice but to carry on largely as before - even if faced with a car known to be cheating the test.

"There are a lot of unknowns we're having to deal with right now," Foster said. "It's a good question."

But ultimately, "that's a VW, EPA question," he said.

On Friday, the EPA and the California Air Resources Board released the results of a third-party investigation that discovered a collection of newer-model, diesel-powered Volkswagen vehicles - including the Chattanooga-made 2014 and 2015 Passat TDI - had been outfitted with "defeat devices," or smart technology that is triggered during emissions tests and only allows acceptable amounts of harmful chemicals to be emitted.

During actual vehicle usage, the technology turns off the emissions control programs and the cars emit harmful chemicals at "up to 40 times the standard," according to the EPA.

Volkswagen of America President and CEO Michael Horn said VW is prepared to pay for its mistakes, but the company and regulators have yet to develop a fix for the software problem in the emissions control.

The U.S. government could fine Volkswagen $37,500 per vehicle for the violations, a total of more than $18 billion. The U.S. Justice Department, the California Air Resources Board and German authorities are also investigating.

News of the scandal has rattled the automotive world and Volkswagen, the world's largest auto maker. Volkswagen stocks have declined each day since the EPA's announcement, and the company has now committed $7.3 billion to correcting the issue.

On Tuesday, Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn released a video in which he said "I am endlessly sorry" for damaging the public's trust in Volks- wagen and "I apologize in every way to our customers, to authorities and the whole public for the wrongdoing."

He said Volkswagen officials "will clear this up."

The day before, Horn said during the unveiling of the new Chattanooga-made Passat that "we have totally screwed up."

The widening scandal has rattled local trust in the auto maker and brochure Chattanooga employer, as well as spurring underlying questions about what the estimated 482,000 rigged Volkswagen and Audi cars on roads now are doing to air quality.

Neither Tennessee nor EPA officials returned requests for information Tuesday about how local testing agencies should handle rigged VW and Audi cars, or how long it might be until a vehicle recall goes into effect. Last week, the EPA called on Volkswagen to voluntarily recall affected cars.

Bill Knowles, Hamilton County Clerk, said until something happens at the state level, his office doesn't have the authority to deny registration to any vehicle that passes inspection.

"Per law, the only role of the county clerk's office is to verify emissions test compliance prior to title and/or registration," he said.

Bob Colby, director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau, said Tuesday "we have absolutely no information to indicate" that there is any active violation of state or city air quality standards or regulations.

"It's a federal matter, and the federal folks will sort it out with the Volkswagen folks and any other manufacturer involved," he said.

Colby also said in Tennessee, as in most states, "federal law pre-empts the area of automobile or vehicle engines and air quality."

The major exception to the rule is California, one of the places where the investigation into VW originated.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@times freepress.com or 423-757-6480.

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