This country’s effort to improve public health by reducing air pollution has seen some remarkable leaps forward. Technologies like the catalytic converter, scrubbers for power plants, and unleaded gasoline led to immediate, dramatic reductions in emissions and noticeable improvements in public health, along with business opportunities and job creation.
At other times during this half-century national effort, progress has been incremental: Auto emissions improve as people buy new cars that meet increasingly strict standards; energy-efficiency improves as people replace inefficient lighting and appliances with ones that use less energy. Shifts to cleaner sources of energy (natural gas instead of coal, wind and solar instead of fossil fuels) happen as markets shift due to energy prices and consumer demand for cleaner energy.
These changes, fast or slow, have been the result of state and federal laws, regulations and policies, or market-driven shifts. Governments seldom have funds to invest in specific technology upgrades. But now comes the Volkswagen diesel-gate settlement, with a whopping $40.9 million for Indiana to reduce emissions from diesel engines across the state. With these funds, Indiana has a tremendous opportunity to both significantly improve air quality and public health in some of our most polluted communities and make choices that will result in long-term, transformative change in transportation.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is asking for public comment by the end of March on its draft plan for how to allocate the settlement. Unfortunately, the plan does not articulate the state’s goals or vision, nor provide the public with information to judge the relative merits of different technologies. IDEM admits this, saying the draft plan is bare-bones and will be filled in after the department receives comments. But asking the public to prioritize without providing information for them to judge the relative benefits and costs of different projects means comment will be dominated by likely applicants for the funds, who will likely advocate for their particular technology.
Indiana should prioritize projects where diesel emissions are high and population is dense or particularly vulnerable. This includes inner-city and highly industrialized neighborhoods, where diesel hotspots affect vulnerable residents. We should also prioritize the kinds of technologies that deliver the most public-health bang for the VW buck. Research shows, for example, that electric buses get more health benefits dollar-for-dollar than do other engine upgrades. States like Ohio and Michigan proposed to set aside portions of their VW money for cleaner buses. Indiana should consider this approach.
Indiana should put the maximum amount of money allowed under the settlement into the infrastructure needed for electric vehicles, such as charging stations, which will improve air quality the most and make a lasting impact on moving our communities forward toward new, cleaner energy technology for transportation. If every school district in Indiana had clean, quiet electric school buses, or if the trash trucks lumbering up and down our neighborhood streets and alleys were emission-free, that would be transformative.
Decades of research show that reducing air pollution saves lives and reduces costs to the economy. The VW Mitigation Fund is an opportunity that is not likely to come again soon. Let’s make the most of it.•
Jay is emeritus professor at the Fairbanks School of Public Health and Indiana University School of Medicine. McCabe is a law professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law and senior fellow at the Environmental Law and Policy Center.