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Washington — Embattled air bag manufacturer Takata Corp. told Congress it will reduce the use of controversial air bag inflator propellant ammonium nitrate, as it faced harsh criticism for not moving faster to make fixes.

Takata Vice President Kevin Kennedy told a House committee Tuesday that the Japanese manufacturer will continue to use ammonium nitrate in its inflators — even as its competitors use other propellants — but said he expected that the company’s use of the compound will decline as it shifts to another chemical.

“We also have alternate propellants now with guanidine nitrate. We started production a year or two ago and we’re continuing to ramp those up. I think overall you will see our production of ammonium nitrate go down rapidly,” Kennedy said.

But he reiterated at various points that Takata will not immediately halt the use of the propellant. He noted that in newer air bags it is adding a drying agent to the compound that also extends the life of the air bag.

The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee overseeing auto safety on Tuesday questioned Takata and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the nearly year-long delay in Takata declaring the vehicles defective and finding the root cause of the exploding air bags linked to six deaths and more than 100 injuries. That decision only came last week under heavy pressure from NHTSA. The inflator can explode when activated, throwing shrapnel at drivers and passengers.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., said Takata wasn’t taking responsibility. “There’s no excuse for that,” he said, adding that members wanted to hear Takata say: “We screwed up.”

Takata, which has its North American headquarters in Auburn Hills, on May 19 declared inflators defective in up to 33.8 million vehicles. That led to the largest-ever recall in U.S. history, with callbacks by 11 automakers. The decision added about 17 million vehicles to recalls that began in 2008.

“Every morning I fear I am playing headline roulette waiting for another rupture,” said Rep. Mike Burgess, R-Texas, who chairs the commerce, manufacturing and trade panel that held the hearing. He said he understood that Takata hasn’t found a root cause but added “if no other chemical” than ammonium nitrate has been implicated, he wondered why they are still using it.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., quoted an expert whot said ammonium nitrate is cheaper and more dangerous than other chemicals. Although the exact reason for the exploding inflators is not known, some have argued that ammonium nitrate becomes unstable in high-humidity areas and can ignite with excessive force.

Kennedy said one reason for the declining use of the compound is because it has a “bad reputation” stemming from many reports raising questions about its use. The company is currently using competitors’ inflators for half of replacement inflators that don’t contain ammonium nitrate.

Takata said Monday it has no plans to halt use, but is adding a moisture-absorbing desiccant to air bags that use the chemical. But Kennedy said it is still building a limited number of inflators for new vehicles without the drying agent; he said they were currently believed to be safe but added they ultimately might be recalled.

Burgess said “couldn’t believe” Takata is still using ammonium nitrate without the drying agent. “It almost seems like there should be a warning label stamped on the car: ‘Caution this air bag may not be safe.’”

Kennedy said it is “not paying 100 percent” of the costs of the recalls and that it is in negotiations with the 11 automakers about sharing the costs.

Members of Congress criticized NHTSA’s handling of the announcement on May 19 of the largest-ever auto safety recall, which effectively added about 17 million vehicles to recalls that first began in 2008. Owners swamped NHTSA’s safercar.gov trying to find out if their vehicles were added. But automakers only began adding vehicles to the website last week.

“The messaging around these air bag recalls has been tortured at best,” Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, chair of the committee. “I am concerned that Takata and NHTSA decided to release head-turning, headline-grabbing recall numbers at a time when the information is not yet actionable for consumers. Drivers read about the biggest recall in history but could not look up if their car was part of the recall. How does that help safety?”

Two weeks after the May 19 announcement, seven of 11 automakers have disclosed to NHTSA up to 30.4 million vehicles, but it is not clear how many vehicle identification numbers are on the government website. Automakers have 60 days after disclosing a recall to NHTSA before they must post them.

Rosekind said he hopes “within the next two weeks” that all VIN numbers will be on the website, but encouraged owners to check every week.

Republicans on the committee vowed to hold more hearings if necessary until the questions are answered.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com

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