A federal appeals court has upheld a six-figure penalty levied against the stars of the “Diesel Brothers” monster truck television show for altering emission control systems in trucks, resulting in unnecessary air pollution in Utah.
But the 53-page ruling released Tuesday came with caveats that will put the matter back in the Salt Lake City courtroom of U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby for further proceedings.
The underlying case was brought not by state regulators but by the environmental group Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE). The appeals court affirmed the right of private groups to bring action against polluters for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act.
“We are a step closer to clean, healthy air in Utah thanks to this decision,” said Salt Lake City anesthesiologist Brian Moench, UPHE’s president. “The appeals court’s ruling today has broad implications. It is a victory for public health protection, for preserving the rule of law, and for the right of citizens to pursue punishment of any company that might have a similar business practice that disregards the rights of citizens to breathe clean air.”
David “Heavy D” Sparks and his associates at Sparks Motors LLC illegally sold or retrofitted at least 31 diesel trucks with equipment that disabled required emission control systems, according to the group’s suit. Some of these so-called “defeat parts” allowed drivers to release huge plumes of black exhaust in a practice known as “rolling coal.”
Sparks’ lawyer Cole Cannon claimed Tuesday’s ruling was actually a defeat for the physicians group because it directs Shelby to recalculate the penalty so that it excludes trucks Sparks sold to customers outside Utah.
“The vast majority of the penalties assessed against the diesel brothers are going to be dropped,” Cannon wrote in an email. “In other words the 10th Circuit ruling means the UPHE just lost 90% of the case that they brought. To my knowledge there was only one truck that was actually sold and operated in Utah.”
He blasted the group for initially seeking $118 million in case involving only 19 trucks and about 100 parts.
“This case was about attorneys’ fees for the attorneys of the UPHE and not about the environment,” Cannon wrote, “because if the environment mattered to them they would have taken Sparks up on his numerous offers to clean up the air in the Wasatch Front such as his offer to repair low income folks emissions for free.”
To build its case against Sparks, Utah Physicians had purchased a truck Sparks had altered, a 2013 Ford F-250, for $43,000 and had its emissions levels tested. The vehicle released 36 times more pollutants than had been its emission-control system been working properly, according to evidence presented at trial.
“It was a classic coal roller. You step on the gas and out comes a big cloud,” said the group’s lawyer Reed Zars, a lawyer representing UPHE. The catalytic converter, diesel particulate filter and other controls had been removed.
“It had been ‘straight piped,’ given what they call a full delete. You just see like a sewer pipe going from the manifold back to the rear of the truck,” Zars said. “Curiously, the price seems to go higher, the less it has on it for emissions control.”
The group had to spend $8,500 to restore those controls before reselling the truck.
Concluding Sparks’ practices qualified as “flagrant misconduct,” 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Harris Hartz wrote, “we see no gross disproportion” with the $760,000 in civil penalties Shelby ordered.
But the three-judge panel remanded the case back to Shelby to determine the extent to which the violations occurred in Utah. Citing technical provisions in the law, the ruling directed Shelby to recalculate the penalty to exclude violations in which the offending vehicle was sold to an out-of-state customer that had not been previously operated in Utah or where the illegal defeat parts were sold to an out-of-state customer.
“As far as we know, they’ve all been used in Utah,” Zars said. “A number of them are out polluting in other states.”
Regardless, Sparks is prohibited from removing pollution controls or selling vehicles without required controls. Future instances of violating pollution standards could put the “Diesel Brothers” in contempt of court.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from Sparks Motors’ lawyer.