PROVIDENCE –  The owner and President of a North Kingstown-based trucking company, along with his two corporations, all admitted to a federal judge in Providence today that they conspired together with trucking and diesel vehicle sales and service companies throughout the United States and with a foreign national to violate the Clean Air Act by selling and providing a software program that tampered with on-board computers in order to alter or bypass key features in emission control systems, announced United States Attorney Zachary A. Cunha.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established standards that limit the emission of air pollutants from various types of vehicle engines.  To meet those standards, vehicle manufacturers design and install certain hardware components as part of the systems that manage and treat engine exhaust to reduce multiple types of pollution.

“Our environmental laws are here to protect the clean air that every Rhode Islander deserves to breathe,” said U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha. “When companies choose to ignore those laws and put profit over their legal duties, and spew diesel soot and contaminants across Rhode Island and New England in the process, this Office will hold them to account.”

“Tampering with diesel vehicles by installing defeat devices increases emissions of smog and soot, both of which contribute to serious health problems that often disproportionately affect families, especially children, living in underserved communities,” stated Tyler Amon, Special Agent in Charge for EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division for New England. “Placing profit over public health in Rhode Island has clear accountability.”

According to court documents, from roughly September of 2014 through approximately August 27, 2019, Michael J. Collins, his North Kingstown company M&D Transportation, Inc.; his now-defunct computer company Diesel Tune-Ups of RI, Inc.; various trucking and diesel vehicle sales and repair companies throughout the United States; and a foreign national all conspired to alter or disable certain functions of the Electronic Control Modules (ECM) and On Board Diagnostic (OBD) monitoring systems of heavy-duty diesel vehicles such as semi-trucks or “big rigs.”  These alterations were referred to in the industry as “tunes.” 

In exchange for a fee, the foreign national would download tuning software through a laptop computer, provided by Collins and his companies, that was then connected to each vehicle.  The tuning business was marketed on Facebook, with claims that it provided increased power and better fuel mileage and offered tuning for “BigRig semi-trucks & engines” including tuning related to emission control equipment. The Facebook page directed interested companies to contact a Rhode Island telephone number associated with Collins, M & D and Diesel Tune-Ups. 

When tuning was done through a laptop computer, Collins instructed the Companies to call the foreign national for further instructions once they had received the laptop.  Through a remote connection, the “tunes” were then downloaded onto each vehicle’s ECM or computer to reprogram the vehicle’s monitoring systems. The tunes tampered with the vehicle’s monitoring systems so that they would not detect malfunctions in the emission control components, thereby allowing vehicles to operate without proper emission controls. As a result, “tuned” vehicles could run with increased horsepower and torque, which can reduce maintenance and repair costs, but which results in significant increases in pollutant emissions. Often, installation of the “tunes” was undertaken in concert with diesel sales and service centers that were making other changes to trucks’ pollution control systems.  Collins also employed the same techniques to circumvent emission controls on some of M & D’s own diesel vehicles.

Customers paid Collins’ companies between $1,700 and $3,650 for each vehicle tuned. Collins and his companies wired a portion of the funds to their foreign co-conspirator and retained a portion of the funds for themselves. From at least March of 2017 through at least June 1, 2018, Collins either deposited or caused to be deposited into the Diesel Tune-Ups bank account fees received from approximately 25 different diesel trucking or repair shops throughout the United States.

According to court documents, diesel exhaust is known to contain a variety of air pollutants identified as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. The act of completely removing or disabling a vehicle’s emission control system can increase pollutant emissions, presenting a risk to the environment and public health. More recent testing conducted by EPA indicates that the pollutant increase is even greater when the emission controls are deleted from commercial semi-tractor trailer trucks.

Collins, M&D Transportation, and Diesel Tune Ups of RI pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Clean Air Act. They are scheduled to be sentenced on July 10, 2023. The defendant’s sentence will be determined by United States District Judge Mary S. McElroy after consideration of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney John P. McAdams.

The matter was investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division – Boston Area Office.

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