There is often no glory in muckraking. The researchers at West Virginia University’s Center for Alternative Fuels Engines and Emissions had just $70,000 in grants and research funding when they uncovered one of the greatest emissions scandals of the 21st century: Volkswagen’s diesel emissions cheat, which would go on to cost the world’s second-largest car company $14.7 billion. Almost a year later, the center still operates on a shoestring.
“The success of Mr. Carder’s David against Volkswagen’s Goliath illustrates the huge disparity in resources between carmakers and oversight groups,” the New York Times pointed out this week. “The road testing technology that exposed Volkswagen to a raft of criminal investigations and lawsuits never attracted much interest—or money—from regulators or carmakers until recently.”
“I still have sleepless nights trying to figure out how I’m going to pay the guys the next pay cycle,” Dan Carder, the department director at the university told the paper. Scarcely any of the group’s annual budget comes from its university, which is even cutting it this year.
Carder said he first grew suspicious of Volkswagen’s emissions discrepancies in 2013, and received the $70,000 grant from an environmental group. The team worked overtime, shoehorning unreliable mobile laboratory equipment into test cars, and Carder scrambled for $20-$30,000 more to support them. But the team first believed that the emissions discrepancies were due to technical issues, or design flaws. Never anything intentional, built-in.
In 2013 the Volkswagen Group reported a profit of 11.5 billion Euros and a sales revenue of 197 billion Euros.
By some drastic estimates, the 11 million cars affected globally by Volkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal have released up 35 to 40 times the legal limit for nitrogen oxides into the air. Nitrogen oxides are greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, says the U.S. National Library of Medicine; when breathed in they inflame the lung lining, reducing its functions and ability to fight off infections. A study from MIT and Harvard claims that 60 people will die up to two decades prematurely as a result. It is a public health issue, whether we emphasize things as that or not. The team of researchers at West Virginia University have ensured that the environment won’t be damaged any further—at least, not from one company.
This year, Carder was named to TIME Magazine’s annual list of 100 most influential people. “Carder’s team is not waiting for excuses,” wrote (who else?) Ralph Nader. “As we enter a new era of pro-consumer testing, we can thank Dan Carder for reporting the facts that show the way.”
Volkswagen has agreed to fund $4.7 billion of its nearly $15 billion fine towards emissions research. California is guaranteed over one billion of those dollars, a windfall for the California Air Resources Board, even if the money doesn’t go directly to the organization. West Virginia? Who knows. Whistleblowers rarely get the recognition they deserve. Not everyone is celebrated as a Woodward and Bernstein-even when, occasionally, they deserve to be.
“Without the research that folks like this do, global pollution treaties aren’t worth the paper they’re written on,” tweeted journalist E.W. Niedermeyer, albeit with more feeling.