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Washington — When Volkswagen AG admitted last week it used sophisticated software to evade emissions rules for 482,000 diesel cars, it joined a long history of vehicle manufacturers that have tried evading rules regulating air pollution.

Over the last year the Environmental Protection Agency has reached 14 settlements or won court orders against manufacturers for not complying with the rules. A number of those cases involved Chinese-made all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles. And Honda Motor Co. and Kia Motors Inc. have agreed to small settlements in recent years.

But the biggest cases to date involved General Motors — and in another case, seven manufacturers of heavy-duty diesel engines. Both cases came to light two decades ago.

In 1995, the EPA and Justice Department slapped GM with an $11 million fine for installing “defeat devices” on 470,000 1991-95 Cadillac Sevilles and Devilles that overrode pollution controls. That resulted in carbon monoxide emissions of up to three times the legal limit.

At the time, it was the largest ever case brought under the Clean Air Act and it was the first judicial auto recall aimed at curbing damage to the environment. In total, GM agreed to spend $45 million to settle government charges that it put illegal devices in the Cadillacs: Besides the $11 million fine, it spent more than $25 million to recall and retrofit the polluting vehicles; it spent another $8.75 million on projects to offset emissions from the cars.

The problem started in 1991, when GM designed a new engine control computer chip to respond to complaints of stalling and other problems in Cadillacs equipped with 4.9-liter engines.

“The device nearly tripled the output of carbon monoxide when the car’s climate control system is on — for heating or cooling,” the Justice Department said in 1995. “The instructions on the computer chip enriched the fuel (increased the amount of fuel relative to air), which overrode the emission control system and resulted in multiplying the carbon monoxide emissions. For the 1993-1995 model years, GM again failed to disclose the use of the device or its adverse emissions effect.”

The defeat devices in the Cadillacs resulted in the illegal release of about 100,000 tons of excess carbon monoxide pollution, the government said.

Then-EPA Administrator Carol Browner noted that the GM vehicles “caused enough additional air pollution to blanket a major U.S. city, such as Washington, D.C., with a 10-foot layer of carbon monoxide.”

Janet Reno, who was attorney general then, said, “Carbon monoxide can cause cardiopulmonary problems and can lead to headaches, impaired vision and a reduced ability to work and learn. These so-called defeat devices are not just paper violations, but result in real increases in emissions that affect real people.”

The Detroit automaker was required to buy back older vehicles. And to offset the damage to the environment, it purchased new school buses that burned cleaner fuels. Like GM, VW is almost certain to be required to take steps to offset the added pollution.

It wasn’t until June 2005 that a federal judge ended the consent decree overseeing GM’s conduct.

A spokesman for the company declined to comment Monday, but noted that GM’s current diesel vehicles use robust emission-control systems to remove pollution.

The case involving seven leading manufacturers of heavy-duty diesel engines was one of the biggest environmental enforcement actions in history. In 1998, EPA reached a $1 billion settlement with the manufacturers; that included $83.4 million in fines.

The EPA said the firms sold engines equipped with devices designed to defeat federal anti-pollution controls.

“These illegal devices allow engines to pass EPA’s emissions tests in the lab, but turn off pollution control equipment under normal driving conditions — and all to cut a few corners on costs,” EPA Administrator Carol Browner said at the time.

The EPA said that more than 1 million trucks were on the road with these illegal devices. They were emitting an additional 1.3 million tons of nitrogen oxides, equal to 65 million cars.

Recent EPA settlements have been much smaller:

In 2012, Suzuki Motor Corp. agreed to pay $885,000 for importing and selling 25,458 uncertified all-terrain vehicles and off-road motorcycles in the United States between 2006 and 2010.

Suzuki agreed to three projects to reduce hydrocarbon emissions by at least 210 tons: It provided portable gas cans that complied with current EPA regulations on the amount of vapors that can escape. It agreed to discontinue its sale in the U.S. of fuel lines that could leak gas fumes. Suzuki also told owners that if they modified their motorcycles or ATVs in ways that boost emissions, they could lose warranty coverage.

Kia Motors Inc. and Hyundai Motor Co. — both controlled by the same Korean conglomerate — in 2011 each agreed to pay $210,000 for failing to do confirmation emissions testing on vehicles between 2001-11. As part of the settlement, both were required to provide documentation to the EPA of completing 2013-2014 model tests.

In 2013, Honda paid a $580,00 fine to EPA for importing 437,000 off-road engines from 2003 through 2008 that weren’t equipped with the air intake box and/or muffler present on test engines. The company entered into a consent decree.

An Illinois Chrysler dealer was fined $5,000 in 2013 for importing 11 1997 Jeep Cherokee SUVs that didn’t meet emissions requirements.

In November, the EPA won a $1.3 million judgment against Chinese motorcycle and RV manufacturer Jonway USA with violations of the Clean Air Act covering about 10,000 vehicles. Motorcycles were listed as having carburetor with a nonadjustable idle air-fuel mixture screw, but in fact had idle air-fuel mixture screws that could allow for higher emissions.

Also that month, Chinese company Dongfang Motor Inc. paid a $6,900 penalty for importing 52 go-karts that had never been approved to meet U.S. emissions rules; it was required to export them outside North America under the settlement.

But the VW case has the potential to dwarf all of those settlements: The EPA says the automaker in theory could face up to $18 billion in penalties.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8735

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