Dirty Business

Volkswagen lawyers approved diesel monkey tests

Portrait of an ape
Contemplating the dirty secrets that everybody knew. Source: Getty

Volkswagen’s involvement in testing diesel fumes on animals goes deeper than so far realized. Internal emails seen by Handelsblatt suggest Volkswagen’s lawyers were also actively involved in approving and adapting tests of diesel engines on monkeys. Initial revelations last week had primarily implicated the company’s PR team in the experiments.

The new phase of the Dieselgate scandal has plunged Volkswagen into renewed crisis, just when executives hoped the company was putting the scandal behind it. Falsifying the level of diesel emissions in environmental tests has cost the company €24 billion since the practice was first made public in September 2015. The latest revelations threaten to substantially increase that bill, as well as inflicting further damage to the reputation of the world’s biggest car maker.

The emails about the monkey research were sent in June 2013 by Michael Spallek, head of the EUGT, the so-called European Research Association on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, which aimed to study effects of traffic on humans and the environment and which was founded by leading German car makers, Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler. The EUGT was disbanded last year.

“Mr. Müller is a poor crisis manager and should step down.”

Michael Theurer, deputy parliamentary leader, Free Democratic Party

In the emails, VW’s lawyers pushed to replace human subjects with primates in experiments. The tests were carried out by the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute, or LRRI, in the US state of New Mexico. Mr. Spallek told LRRI that VW’s lawyers had OK-ed testing on primates, and had no objections from a scientific point of view, or in terms of liability or public relations. Mr. Spallek, previously a long-serving Volkswagen company doctor, was responsible for confirming details of the animal testing and communicating these to key figures across Volkswagen.

Confirmation that VW’s legal team had approved tests on primates was emailed to the research team in the US, as well as to Stuart Johnson, head of VW’s American environmental office, Hans-Georg Kusznir, another EUGT executive, and Hans-Jürgen Schäfer, a former VW lobbyist.

“Ughh,” Jacob Macdonald, the head of the LRRI research team working with the EUGT, wrote to his colleagues. Now these diesel boys want to test on monkeys instead of humans. The Germans are not kidding around, he said. Air pollution experiments with humans are commonplace, but testing on primates is rare.

The involvement of VW’s lawyers continued as the tests did. Some days after green-lighting primate testing, Mr. Spallek arranged a telephone conversation between the head of LRRI’s laboratory and David Geanacopoulos, a lawyer employed by Volkswagen’s American subsidiary.

05 p07 Animal experiments 2-01

The experiments involved 10 caged monkeys inhaling fumes emitted by a Volkswagen for many hours. But the US researchers were not told that the Volkswagen’s diesel engine had already been manipulated, resulting in much lower laboratory emissions than in real-world use. There was no scientific benefit to the primates’ exposure to diesel fumes: The results were largely meaningless.

The revelations of animal testing have caused further alarm at all the German car companies implicated. Volkswagen has suspended chief lobbyist Thomas Steg. BMW and Daimler have also suspended senior staff who previously held positions at the EUGT.

VW CEO, Matthias Müller, has described the animal testing as “repulsive” and announced a “thorough investigation.” Daimler has brought in an external law firm to investigate its connections to EUGT, while BMW has established an internal investigation.

It is VW that is in the most difficult position though. In the wake of the Dieselgate scandal, the US Department of Justice seconded a lawyer to act as an official observer to Volkswagen. Larry Thompson has orders to monitor structures put in place by the company to prevent any further breaches of health and environmental law.

Handelsblatt has learned that Mr. Thompson is already looking into the animal testing scandal. If the official US monitor thinks there has been inadequate cultural change at Volkswagen, he can order personnel changes and even close entire departments. “This could all get very expensive,” said one VW insider.

In Germany too, there has been sharp criticism of Volkswagen and its CEO: “Mr. Müller is a poor crisis manager and he should step down,” Michael Theurer, deputy parliamentary leader of the pro-business Free Democratic Party, told Handelsblatt.

Sönke Iwersen leads Handelsblatt’s team of investigative reporters. Stefan Menzel writes about the auto industry focusing on Volkswagen. Martin Murphy covers the steel, car and defense industries for Handelsblatt. This story was adapted in English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: iwersen@handelsblatt.com, menzel@handelsblatt.com, murphy@handelsblatt.com


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