City mechanics apparently disconnected anti-pollution devices on 91 police vehicles in 1986, but now Buffalo officers may be required to participate in the war against pollution as a result.
"I'd say the City of Buffalo is one of the larger police department violators we've had," George Lawrence, an Environmental Protection Agency official.
If the city accepts the settlement proposed by the EPA, Buffalo police officers will be forced to help enforce state emission-control laws or the city will risk fines up to $5,000. The city also is being asked to pay $2,500 immediately.
"We've had other cases when a government agency has tampered with vehicles, including police departments," Lawrence said. "It's something we think is inappropriate because of the bad example it sets."
Assistant Corporation Counsel R. Peter Morrow said Mayor Griffin already has agreed to the proposed settlement. It will go to the Common Council for consideration later today.
Morrow said the city did not admit any wrongdoing but did promise to assure it would not happen again.
"The gist is the city will undertake an educational and enforcement campaign on existing state law," he said.
In return for the EPA's forgiving the city another $60,000 in settlement costs, the plan calls for Buffalo police to help enforce state inspection laws regarding tampering with car pollution-control devices.
The EPA plan calls for Buffalo police to train and assign officers to go to each of the city's approximately 300 state inspection stations at least twice during the next 16 months.
The police will educate station operators about the law and also monitor its compliance. Failure to train the officers to perform the
inspections would result in a $5,000 penalty.
The settlement also demands that undercover officers visit each inspection station with a faulty vehicle at least once to snare any violators.
"The undercover inspection shall require the officer to bring a vehicle to the facility with at least one of its emission-control parts missing or deactivated and request an inspection," the settlement states.
Police would have to refer all violators to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. The EPA settlement requires all paperwork, testimony and follow-up investigations be done at the Police Department's expense.
The settlement calls for at least 200 hours of donated police work. Progress reports are to be filed with the EPA every four months. The city can be fined $500 for each inspection station it fails to visit.
Lawrence, who is chief of the EPA's Eastern Field Office, said the proposed settlement is the result of a tip his agency received in July 1986. He said 215 vehicles at the police garage were inspected, and 70 were found to be missing their catalytic converters. An additional 21 had other pollution-control parts missing.
"Documents were found that showed the city mechanics had removed the catalytic converters for 45 vehicles," Lawrence said. The EPA contends the city was responsible for all the tampering.
Morrow said he believes the pollution-control devices were removed to prolong the operation of the police cars. According to documents, the vehicles were between three and 10 years old, with most being 1980 models.
"At the time the violations allegedly occurred, the fleet was old and in a state of disrepair," Morrow said. "It was easier to keep a car running if didn't have a catalytic converter. It's also easier to tune."
EPA documents state that the city could have been fined up to $227,500 for the apparent violations. The city, however, spent $26,000 to immediately repair or replace the vehicles, and the EPA decided to negotiate the settlement, Lawrence said.
"In most cases, if we can figure out a way to have a defendant engage in a public information activity which reduces pollution, we'll recognize that and adjust the penalty," Lawrence said.
The city also helped identify the suppliers of the parts used to bypass the police vehicles' emission-control systems. Lawrence said such parts aren't illegal but would be if Congress passes the new Clean Air Act now before it.
Police Commissioner Ralph V. Degenhart said he was unaware of the problem until his department was notified by city attorneys of the EPA's action. He said he didn't know if there has been any disciplinary actions as a result.
"I didn't know anything about it or I would have said we shouldn't be violating the EPA laws," Degenhart said.
At a Common Council caucus meeting Monday, city attorneys said the Griffin administration wants the Council to agree quickly to the proposed settlement. North Council Member David P. Rutecki, however, asked that the proposal be sent to committee for further discussion.
"I will seek to find out who authorized this illegal act and will seek to make that person liable for the fine," Rutecki said. "It's ridiculous this city should break federal laws."