The saga surrounding Cummins' $2 billion diesel emissions cheating settlement with the United States government has been dramatic. The manufacturer says it has "no evidence that anyone acted in bad faith and does not admit wrongdoing," though it still agreed to pay the largest civil penalty in history under the Clean Air Act for allegedly installing emissions defeat devices or software on nearly a million Ram 2500 and 3500 pickup trucks between 2013 and 2023.
Following the formal announcement of the settlement and a recall covering 600,000 trucks, I sat in on a press call with highly ranked officials from the DOJ, Environmental Protection Agency, and California Air Resources Board where no one minced words. If you ask them, Cummins blatantly cheated.
David M. Uhlmann, Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, spoke very candidly about the case. "Cummins deserves to pay every dollar," he told me, calling the company's actions a "brazen scheme." You'd probably expect an enforcement leader to say such a thing, but just as important as the words he said is the conviction that he spoke with.
Uhlmann was nominated for his role by President Biden and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in July 2023. He has spent the past six months strengthening the EPA's enforcement program, especially related to cases involving the Clean Air Act. That's why he's spearheading the federal government's action against Cummins, which is accused of tampering with emissions systems on nearly a million trucks over the past decade.
I asked Uhlmann directly what this settlement says about the EPA's enforcement program going forward, as well as its focus on the automotive industry. He replied, “Polluters who break the law and expose our communities to harm will be brought to justice. We have taken steps during this administration to revitalize the EPA enforcement program which suffered more than a decade of budget cuts. It was particularly limited during the pandemic because we weren’t able to conduct the on-site inspections that are at the heart of any environmental enforcement program."
Uhlmann continued, “In the last year, we have increased the number of on-site inspections we’re doing. We’ve increased the number of criminal investigations we’ve opened. We’ve settled more cases, brought in more penalty dollars, and as today’s settlement makes clear, we’re not only pursuing more cases—we’re pursuing bigger cases and seeking record fines. That should send a message to the entire automotive industry that we will not tolerate the type of illegal behavior that Cummins engaged in.”
This goes for automotive OEMs like Cummins as well as aftermarket tuning companies, many of which the EPA has made an example of in recent years. Even if the federal government won't name the exact components Cummins installed that were out of compliance with emissions regulations, they'll continue to seek out similar cases elsewhere. No matter how you feel about the Cummins debacle, a record-setting penalty like this sets a precedent and the EPA isn't afraid to go higher.
“If the price needs to go up to stop misconduct, the price will go up," Uhlmann said.
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