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US Department of Justice sues VW, Audi, and Porsche for alleged Clean Air Act violations

Volkswagen Group’s ongoing Dieselgate scandal was one of our top car stories of 2015, but it may end up being one of the biggest storylines of 2016 as well.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a civil complaint against Volkswagen, Audi, and Porsche for allegedly violating the Clean Air Act. The suit claims that nearly 600,000 diesel engines — approximately 499,000 2.0-liter units and 85,000 3.0-liter units — were fitted with an illegal defeat device used to fool emissions tests. When a test was being administered, the vehicles altered their emissions to comply with standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under normal driving conditions, however, the cars produced several times more nitrogen than allowed — up to 40 times the legal limit in the case of 2.0-liter engines and nine times the federal standard for 3.0-liter engines. Nitrogen has been linked to a variety of serious respiratory issues such as asthma.

“Car manufacturers that fail to properly certify their cars and that defeat emission control systems breach the public trust, endanger public health and disadvantage competitors,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The United States will pursue all appropriate remedies against Volkswagen to redress the violations of our nation’s clean air laws alleged in the complaint.”

“With today’s filing, we take an important step to protect public health by seeking to hold Volkswagen accountable for any unlawful air pollution, setting us on a path to resolution,” echoed Assistant Administrator Cynthia Giles for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “So far, recall discussions with the company have not produced an acceptable way forward. These discussions will continue in parallel with the federal court action.”

Related: 5 resolutions car companies should make for 2016 (listen up, VW)

Dieselgate was first introduced to the public on September 18, 2015, when the EPA issued a notice of violation of the Clean Air Act. Since that date, Volkswagen Group has shuffled its management structure, cancelled diesel vehicle sales, and ramped up its focus on electrified models. VW has not officially commented on the suit at the time of this writing, but the brand’s head of passenger cars, Dr. Herbert Diess, will give a keynote address at CES 2016 on January 5, where he is expected to lay out the automaker’s plans for the future. The company currently faces approximately $18 billion in fines.