San Francisco Chronicle
By Joel Espino

Make no mistake: Volkswagen broke air laws. It actively cheated emissions tests and lied about “clean diesel” cars that were anything but clean. Now, VW can make up for that wrong by making sure its plan to address the damage it did helps those whose lungs were most affected.

The current version of VW’s $800 million California plan to boost zero-emission vehicle-charging stations, access and public education won’t do that — but it could, with some fairly simple changes.

Remember, many of the people breathing the air VW’s diesels fouled didn’t buy a VW and struggle to afford any vehicle. I’m talking about residents of low-income communities of color who live every day in neighborhoods crisscrossed with the highest concentrations of busy roads and highways. They literally breathe the toxic fumes of VW’s deceit, and the company must make a real commitment to helping clean their air.

Let’s posit that $800 million in zero-emissions vehicle-charging stations and programs can be game-changing — but not if the investment overwhelmingly is located “in the areas with the highest anticipated ZEV demand,” as VW’s plan suggests. That means places like Pacific Heights and Palo Alto, where affluent residents are already buying Teslas and other high-end electric cars — and already breathe cleaner air than those in low-income communities in Bakersfield, Long Beach, Barrio Logan, West Oakland or other communities hurt most by poverty and pollution.

We need VW’s dollars in California communities where the air is dirtiest and where they can boost efforts already under way that are making sure low-income communities of color don’t get left behind in the state’s clean-car revolution.

California leads the nation in getting working families into electric vehicles through incentives, financing, electric car-sharing and clean vanpools, thanks to laws such as the Charge Ahead California Initiative, signed in 2014. Not only that, California’s investor-owned utilities have committed to placing 1,625 electric vehicle-charging stations in disadvantaged communities — the single-largest deployment of its kind.

Right now, VW’s proposal fails to align with these efforts and with the Air Resources Board’s guidance that 35 percent of funds be invested in disadvantaged and low-income communities.

It nods in the direction of disadvantaged communities, but makes little in the way of solid commitments. That must change before the Air Resources Board, which is overseeing the plan, makes a decision.

There’s still time to turn things around. Electrify America, the entity VW created to carry out this part of its penance, has been open to dialogue but must act soon. It can submit a written statement to the Air Resources Board detailing how its plan can be implemented in a way that prioritizes the needs of low-income and disadvantaged communities and brings good jobs and training to those who need them most.

Then, Electrify America should work closely with advocates for environmental justice and equity as well as the residents of affected communities to flesh out community-driven investment plans that ensure real benefits to those whose lungs have borne the brunt of VW’s lawbreaking.

VW did real harm. It now has the power to greatly reduce that harm for those most affected. The path forward is clear, and VW must take it.

Horizon