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The Volkswagen Emissions Scandal and the EPA | Commentary

In a monumental admission of automotive fraud, Volkswagen’s Chief Executive Martin Winterkorn resigned on Sept. 30 amid revelations that millions of VWs were built to cheat on clean air tests.

The scandal came to light when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency blew the whistle on the German auto giant for selling half a million of the stealth polluters in this country.

The cars, diesel-powered models sold since 2008, contain software that defeats emission control tests. As a result, they’re pumping out up to 40 times the legal limit of nitrogen oxides, pollution associated with asthma attacks and other respiratory ailments.

Without effective EPA oversight, this problem — now a global scandal affecting 11 million cars and the reputation of one of Europe’s strongest brands — might never have come to light.

I spent almost two decades of my career at the EPA regulating auto companies such as Volkswagen. As the director of the office that regulates everything that moves and pollutes, I learned that the best, most effective regulation starts from mutual trust and respect. But, in the rare cases when that trust is breached, watchdogs such as the EPA need to be able to discover and expose the violations and then take strong action to protect public health.

And here’s what the EPA’s critics often overlook: It’s the nuts and bolts of the agency’s day-to-day oversight to protect our environment and public health.

That’s why the GOP leadership in Congress is on the wrong track with an aggressive campaign to hamstring the EPA through reckless budget slashing and amendments meant to undercut foundational environmental safeguards and bog down EPA enforcement ability.

The amendments, called riders, would block or impede the EPA from doing its job to help in the fight against climate change, to protect our rivers, wetlands and streams and a host of other important tasks.

The threat to the EPA’s budget is just as onerous. Agency funding is already down more than 20 percent since Republicans took control of the House in 2011. The House has voted to cut it by 9 percent more, draconian reductions that could hamper every program in the agency.

President Barack Obama has proposed $8.5 billion in EPA spending for the fiscal year that begins in October. That’s already 17.5 percent below what the agency spent in 2010. Adjusting for inflation, the real impact is much greater. Staffing is down, expertise and morale have taken substantial hits.

The House, though, would cut the EPA budget even further, to $7.4 billion, a level that would cripple the agency’s ability to carry out its public mandate to safeguard our environment and health.

That would mean cheaters such as Volkswagen might slip through the net, along with industries that threaten our waters and lands with pollution. It would impede the agency’s ability to develop the robust science and technical data that supports sound enforcement and policy-making.

It would constrain the agency’s capacity for engaging with the public in ways that ensure all our voices are heard. It would degrade institutional expertise, undermine morale and make the EPA less efficient, less responsive to stakeholders and less effective at public oversight.

The EPA needs expertise and robust staffing. It needs the capacity to design smart, innovative and fair policies that are good for the environment and provide the basis for long-term prosperity and economic growth.

It will be a lot harder for the EPA to serve the public — and easier for the Volkswagens of the world to evade environmental laws — if GOP leaders succeed in decimating its budget and obstructing its action through riders. These tactics pose a serious threat to the EPA’s ability to protect the country’s land, air, water and health.

Margo Oge spent 32 years at the Environmental Protection Agency, retiring in 2012 as director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality. She is the author of “Driving the Future: Combating Climate Change with Cleaner, Smarter Cars.”

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