Fast Times and Million-Dollar Fines: Inside the EPA’s Messy War on Dirty Diesel Trucks

The federal government is ramping up its crackdown on non-compliant diesel tuners and deleted trucks. But some claim it’s going way too far.

byCaleb Jacobs| PUBLISHED Aug 18, 2022 12:00 PM
Fast Times and Million-Dollar Fines: Inside the EPA’s Messy War on Dirty Diesel Trucks
John Doc via YouTube
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Federal agents—one with a battering ram in hand and the others with their firearms unholstered—hammered on Jon Long’s door in the early morning of July 22, 2020, just a few months into America’s COVID-19 lockdown. Long answered, the agents served his warrant, and then searched his home, seizing approximately $40,000 in diesel tuning products he planned to sell through his company, Openwide Performance. Long’s role in distributing emissions defeat devices had caught the EPA’s attention. In the time since, the United States government has hit other aftermarket pros like him with hefty, seven-figure fines for the same reason.

Citing the Clean Air Act, the EPA is actively and severely punishing diesel performance companies for manufacturing, selling, and installing components that increase tailpipe pollutants. While some believe the agency is serving up long-delayed justice for breaking the law, others see it as government overreach to the nth degree. After talking with a handful of sources inside the industry, including the EPA itself, a clear solution doesn't readily appear to exist yet.

In the 2010s, removing a truck’s emissions equipment was the de facto starting point for many owners looking to make big power. According to the EPA’s estimates, more than 550,000 diesel pickups—approximately 15 percent of the national total that decade—had these modifications equipped. The procedure entails yanking out the restrictive diesel particulate filter, exhaust gas recirculation system, and more to help the engine breathe freely. The problem with that is it makes it harder for people to breathe freely, as the EPA says the resulting pollutants cause lung damage, reduced cardiovascular function, asthma, bronchitis, and lung cancer.

Everyone involved in modifying trucks knew as much. Even then, these parts were long sold in shops and online with disclaimers stating they were for racing use only. How a customer used their truck afterward was up to their discretion. Just about three years ago, however, the EPA decided that that was not enough, and the feds have been demanding that tuners make a holistic effort in keeping vehicles with this equipment off the road. If a tuner or shop is found to be non-compliant, then that gives agents the right to come knocking.

Depending on who you ask in the aftermarket, though, what customers do with their trucks shouldn’t be the company's problem. Unfortunately for shops, the EPA’s stance on things does not account for this and has resulted in a very muddled rollout of its new crackdowns.

Taking on the Tuners

Kory Willis is the founder and lead tuner at PPEI, one of the United States’ most prominent diesel performance outlets. He made a name for himself and his company—particularly in the GM Duramax scene—with record-breaking power figures and quarter-mile times. He’s also facing $3.1 million in criminal fines and civil penalties for violating the Clean Air Act.

Kory Willis is the founder and lead tuner at PPEI. Kory Willis

Court documents released by the U.S. Department of Justice claim PPEI sold 59,135 delete tunes or tuners with delete tunes between 2013 and 2018. These are just some of the items the EPA took issue with, citing 324 product offerings as subject to violation. 

Willis and PPEI plead guilty in March of this year to conspiracy to violate the Clean Air Act and to further violations via tampering with the emissions control system monitoring devices on diesel trucks. Their $3.1 million deal stands as the largest yet in the recent string of emissions crackdowns, perhaps due in part to PPEI moving more than $1 million in product monthly. Court records cite Willis as saying his company has tuned more than 175,000 trucks—not all for delete purposes—which builds up his status as a figurehead for the diesel aftermarket.

That also explains how he's been able to put up a fight against the government. But as he mentions, not every race shop can manage that. Additionally, he despises how the feds have been handling things. He points to Jon Long, the distributor whose home was raided unexpectedly two years back. Video of the search and seizure was captured by Long’s Ring doorbell and shared online shortly after, resurfacing this July when Willis posted it on Instagram for his 46,000 followers to see. 

"Now, the EPA has never showed up at my place with guns blazing," Willis tells me in an interview. "That's why I'm passionate about this fella's story. They've never showed up at my place, doing what they did, and I think personally it's because we had the money and political clout that it would have very negative repercussions on them from a public standpoint.

"I'm not against the EPA. I'm for clean air, clean water,” he clarifies. “But I am very against them being able to overreach by using, like in our case, basically stationary [sic] laws to go after tuners and racing enthusiasts. I'm against them doing criminal enforcement and getting the Department of Justice involved in these very simple matters.” Lastly, he claims that tuners apparently cannot challenge the agency “on their evidence and their science.”

He adds, "The lack of integrity and understanding is beyond rampant.”

Willis says he knows of roughly 30 people that are being harassed and even baited by the government over diesel tuning. Indeed, court docs from the DOJ cite one instance where an undercover agent spoke with a PPEI employee. In the exchange, the agent asked if PPEI had any recommendations for a shop that would delete their truck, to which the employee responded that they “can’t really say that over the phone.”

The agents that raided Long’s home made him put his hands over his head, searched him, and took all of his phones, even the old ones, Long tells me. Then they gave him an ultimatum: plead guilty or enter into an exhaustive court battle. If he complies, then "I take five felonies and I pretty much lose my 17 years of military service, all my benefits, get nothing, and be a felon at the end,” he says. “So I told them no. I was like, 'I'll take my chances.' And they said, 'We're going to take you before a grand jury and you're going to be arrested.' I'm like, 'OK, I'll wait for it and we'll have our day in court.'"

After speaking to Long, I contacted the EPA about its increased number of prosecutions, how the agency differentiates between legal racing use and illegal street use, and more. An agency spokesperson declined to answer with specifics, but they returned with a statement that reinforces the idea that the EPA believes its actions to be wholly justifiable.

"The Clean Air Act does not contain any exemption from the tampering and defeat device prohibitions for motor vehicles used in competition,” the statement reads. “However, EPA does not seek to stop the decades-old practice of converting certified production vehicles to competition vehicles that are to be used solely for sanctioned events.”

The statement goes on to claim that in the entire history of the Clean Air Act, the EPA hasn’t ever gone after those who converted their vehicle into a “dedicated race car” and that the agency has no intention of changing that policy. It notes that its enforcers “routinely ask” the companies that make and sell defeat devices for evidence that what they’re selling is actually used for racing purposes and not for public roads. If a company can prove it, the agency says it will leave them alone.  

Despite the fact that he's spent approximately $7 million on attorneys and legal fees fighting the organization and others like it so far, Willis believes regulations are essential to improve and maintain air quality. "The Clean Air Act was started because it was necessary," Willis says. "And in my opinion, I think the EPA is necessary."

Nowadays, you won’t find any delete tunes or hardware on PPEI's website—not even for race vehicles. But prior to pulling emissions defeat devices completely from their catalogs, PPEI and other companies like it included product disclaimers that stated they were meant for racing use only. Of course, that didn't stop end users from buying them for road use time and again. So although Willis pled guilty to the EPA’s charges, he also still holds firm that it was the end users who abused them and that manufacturers and distributors shouldn't be held responsible. 

All of PPEI's tunes today are developed to work exclusively with trucks whose emissions systems are intact, but customers must now also check a box confirming that their vehicle meets those requirements. If that doesn’t turn out to be the case, PPEI can cancel the order and charge a 10 percent restocking fee.

As part of a court-ordered consent decree, PPEI has switched up its product offerings and put everything in its current catalog through rigorous emissions testing. This is evidenced by the line on each product's page that says "CARB EO pending." That refers to a stricter, California Air Resources Board-compliant Executive Order number, which, in Willis' words, is “burdensome” to obtain. 

Willis claims these certification procedures cost “more than 10 times” what they did three or four months ago, and that every engine generation must also be tested separately, so it’s $50,000 a pop. For a big-name shop like PPEI, that’s already expensive. It’s unclear how smaller shops that don’t bring in the same kind of money can expect to afford these costly certifications and still stay in business. 

"They've set new regulations that I'm down to that are just unrealistic,” Willis says. “We have to get a return on investment after all this testing." 

It’s also unclear, then, if those extra costs eventually will trickle down to customers.

Building Engines By the Book

Not every big name in aftermarket diesel tuning feels at odds with the government. Gale Banks has operated Banks Power in California for more than half a century. He turbocharged his first diesel engine in 1978 and has spent every year since building high-performance compression-ignition power plants that don’t blow black smoke. He was also instrumental in bargaining with CARB to create California’s 27156 vehicle code, which went into effect in 1990 after 10 years of negotiations. 

Gale Banks. Gale Banks

The code enables aftermarket companies to modify vehicles within set legal parameters so long as they don’t alter their emissions control devices. This led to the creation of the aforementioned CARB EO number policy, which some tuners malign and others like Banks unfailingly abide by. It makes sense for him, seeing as he was the representative that spoke on behalf of the performance industry while the details of that code were hammered out.

“[In 1979], California had a different deal going on than the EPA,” Banks says. “Under California law, you couldn’t do dealer-installed performance equipment—[in] the rest of the country you could.”

It would’ve cost Banks and companies like his millions of dollars to undergo the same testing as full-fledged automakers. That’s when he joined the effort to make special provisions for aftermarket companies so they could certify parts and be completely legal for a comparative bargain.

“There [had to be] something that enable[d] the aftermarket to comply that we [could] work out,” Banks recalls. “Performance automotive in California in 1979 was huge, absolutely huge. And guys were modifying their cars and there was no way to keep them legal—but they weren’t enforcing the law.” 

They are now, so it’s a good thing they went through the process of modifying the legislation. 

Plainly put, Banks doesn’t view the CARB regulations as a death sentence for diesel tuning. It’ll require a lot more finesse than removing the DPF and what have you, but he sees his work as proof that big power can be made with stock emissions systems still in place. It just helps to have decades of firsthand experience—not to mention the financial standing that comes with it.

Still, though, Banks has caught criticism for his views. As an example, he believes rolling coal isn’t proof of performance; it’s the opposite. 

“For about 10 years, I was condemned and rejected,” Banks tells me. “My true sex was questioned—’maybe Gale’s a girl’—it’s like diesel smoke was a sign of manhood or something.”

But that’s ridiculous when you consider the first turbocharged diesel truck you could buy at a dealer was a Banks Power-boosted GMC in the mid-’80s. Banks has been doing it ever since, and while some may consider his more analog approach a setback in the fast-paced world of digital tuning, you also can’t undervalue the lifetime of experience he brings.

Any diesel guru worth their salt, which undeniably includes Willis, will tell you that smoke billowing out the exhaust is wasted horsepower. Banks, however, has never taken the approach of selling delete kits or anything that aids a modern truck in running without emissions equipment en masse. In fact, when I ask him about the handful of products on his company’s site that are “49-state compliant, CA in process,” he tells me it’s “only because California is so dang slow” in issuing certifications.

“We have our own emissions lab—I’m talking about emissions tests and a SMOG station,” he says. “We have OEM emissions equipment here and the finest in the world; it’s pure, world-class emissions equipment on our engine dyno and our chassis dyno. Also, we have a PEMS so we can put it in the vehicle and drive it around. We can manage a very high level of accuracy with our emissions tests.”

While at first pass it may seem like Banks and Willis operate at the opposite ends of the philosophical tuning spectrum, they've actually worked together before. Banks has hosted Willis at his shop in Azusa, California, multiple times and you can even see them collaborating in one of Banks’ YouTube videos.

This goes to show the industry is still tight-knit, no matter if you’ve been involved for 10 years or 50. Banks has plenty of lessons on clean tuning and he’s willing to teach them to anyone who will listen.

Not Everyone Cares to Comply

Banks and Willis are but two examples, however. Plenty of other aftermarket companies don’t care to meet the CARB requirements. They’d rather certify parts for use in the 36 states that don’t operate under CARB’s standards, which include key markets like Texas. Willis says those testing protocols are much cheaper.

It’s important to keep in mind that deleting trucks will get you in trouble no matter which states you do business in—but not every shop has stopped. Usually, they’re smaller outfits that perform the modifications in secret, creating an underground tuning culture of sorts. They’d be wise to wash their hands of it all, according to Willis. 

When I ask what his advice is for companies that think they can still get away with it, Willis responds, "[They] won't. There are people running under fake names and fake accounts, some people saying that they're in the Cayman Islands. I can tell you firsthand it's going to hold absolutely no weight except make their case worse. You've got to remember, the federal government is very powerful."

But until every last shop halts the practice, drivers will continue to seek out someone who will delete their trucks.

Truck Owners Remain (Mostly) in the Clear

Not everyone installs defeat devices for performance reasons, though that’s a large part of it. It can also come down to a matter of cost. One owner I spoke with under the condition of anonymity had their 2012 Ford Super Duty with the 6.7-liter Power Stroke stripped of emissions equipment last year over a cracked piston ring.

“The primary reason that I chose to delete my truck was entirely from a financial standpoint,” they explained. “I had cracked a piston ring which required a complete overhaul of my engine. During the disassembly, a main EGR component broke. The cost to repair and replace [it] exceeded the cost of deleting and the mechanic encouraged me to do so. Knowing that exhaust filters can plug up and that can be quite exasperating and expensive, I chose to delete.”

In the time since, they’ve noticed a clear improvement in acceleration and overall performance thanks to a single tow tune. Additionally, the truck nets roughly 3 mpg more than in its factory state. It’s an example of how, in some cases, these improvements complement the cheaper repairs to provide higher value for owners.

“Would I do it again? Maybe,” the owner says. “While I enjoy the increase in power and mpg, my wife despises the increase in diesel fumes (they are almost nonexistent in an undeleted truck). If it had been a newer, or lower mileage, truck, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to delete.”

Not only that, but it’s now nearly impossible for them to trade their truck into a normal car lot because most dealers won’t sell deleted vehicles. The dealers understand the legal risks and aren’t about to find themselves in the same position that others have. 

For example, Mike Sebold, an individual from New Jersey, was targeted after posting his deleted Ram 2500 on Facebook Marketplace when the state’s Department of Environmental Protection spotted it. They gave Sebold 60 days to return his truck to stock or scrap it. At the time of publishing, it has been removed from the road.

Almost No One’s Hands Are Clean

This war on excessive emissions has resulted in lots of casualties. Few parties are completely clean, with many shops taking a hands-off approach to ensuring their parts are used correctly. On the flip side, though, federal and state governments have come down in ways that muddy the water of legal justification. 

It’s not an issue that will be resolved today, tomorrow, or maybe even in the next few years, but right now, tensions are palpable. Many believe they should’ve never been punished, while others think they can still come out unscathed. However, as Willis notes, "For someone to think that they're somehow slick enough to get around the federal government is out the window.”

The threat of millions of dollars in fines and potential jail time will get anyone riled up. Going forward, we aren’t likely to see any tuning company advertising deletes out in the open. But for those that still operate on a hush-hush, no-questions-asked basis, it may only be a matter of time before their name is affixed at the end of a document that says “the United States of America vs. …”

Got a tip or question for the author? Contact them directly: caleb@thedrive.com