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Tow company owner sentenced to federal prison for diesel emissions tampering

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The owner of a Missouri towing company was sentenced to prison this week for violating the Clean Air Act by illegally altering emissions control devices on his fleet of tow trucks.

Kirbyville, Missouri’s Affordable Towing owner Dennis Cleveland, 73, was sentenced to two years in federal prison with no parole, according to a September 19 statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Western District of Missouri.

Cleveland was also ordered to pay a $255,000 fine.

Earlier this year, Cleveland pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the Clean Air Act and one count of tampering with a Clean Air Act monitoring device.

Authorities say that Cleveland admitted to telling workers to physically disable emissions control components on multiple heavy-duty diesel tow trucks since 2011. Cleveland allegedly conspired with Robert Dyche, 67, of Springfield, the owner and operator of Full Flash Tuning, which specializes in illegally tampering with the on-board diagnostic systems on these vehicles.

From The U.S. Attorney’s Office:

Cleveland caused the Affordable Towing trucks to be tampered with to save money by avoiding maintenance expenses on emissions control systems and by spending less money on fuel.

This tampering is frequently referred to as “tuning” or “flashing” an on-board diagnostic system. One purpose for “tuning” is to allow the vehicles to continue to seemingly operate normally while the emissions control system is disabled, rather than forcing the vehicle’s engine into a state known as “limp mode,” which greatly limits the maximum speed of the vehicle, incentivizing the driver or owner to repair the malfunction. The use of “tuning” thereby serves to reduce the high costs associated with maintaining or repairing components of the emissions control systems on heavy-duty diesel trucks.

As a consequence of “tuning,” tampered vehicles spew substantially more deleterious pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (Nox), carbon monoxide (CO), non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHC), and particulate matter (PM) into the air, presenting a risk to the environment and public health.

Cleveland, through Affordable Towing, contracted with Dyche on multiple occasions to “tune” or “flash” the emissions control systems of Affordable Towing vehicles, thereby causing multiple fleet vehicles to be altered in such a way that the vehicles released pollutants into the air that far exceeded the legally allowable amounts under the Clean Air Act. Each diesel truck would continue to operate normally, as if the vehicle were operating in accord with existing Clean Air Act restrictions, rather than go into limp mode.

In addition to personally tuning Affordable Towing vehicles, Dyche, on multiple occasions, would take the vehicles to an unidentified entity in Rogersville, Mo., to “tune” the vehicles, for which he was compensated by Affordable Towing.

Authorities further allege that Cleveland did not cease the use of his fleet of altered tow trucks even after he was contacted by law enforcement in 2022 or even after entering a guilty plea and being warned by the court that continuing to use the modified tow trucks would be a violation of his plea agreement. This resulted in his bond being revoked in July 2023.

Earlier this year, Dyche pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the Clean Air Act. He hasn’t yet been sentenced.

“This business owner intentionally polluted the air in southwest Missouri for more than a decade with massive amounts of cancer-causing toxins in violation of federal law,” said U.S. Attorney Teresa Moore. “He pursued personal profit at the expense of the environment and the health of his neighbors. And he brazenly continued dumping dangerous pollutants into the air, and ultimately into the lungs of everyone in the community, even after pleading guilty and being admonished by the court.”

“The defendant in this case conspired to bypass and disable the emission control equipment on heavy-duty diesel engines,” said Special Agent in Charge Lance Ehrig of EPA’s criminal investigation program in Missouri. “This sentencing demonstrates that EPA will vigorously prosecute those who violate laws designed to protect our communities from harmful air pollution.”

This case was investigated the the Environmental Protection Agency.

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