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US Accuses Volkswagen of Evading Clean Air Laws

People walk past a row of Volkswagens during the company's annual news conference in Berlin March 13, 2014.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered German automaker Volkswagen to recall nearly 500,000 vehicles for intentionally violating clean air laws.

The EPA said Friday that Volkswagen has installed so-called "defeat device" software in its diesel-powered cars that only turn on its pollution emissions controls when the car is undergoing mandatory testing, meaning the controls are completely off during everyday driving.

The agency says the cars emit nitrogen oxide up to 40 times above the limits allowed under the federal Clean Air Act. Nitrogen oxide is a major component of smog and has been linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

"We expected better from Volkswagen," said Cynthia Giles, the EPA's assistant administrator for enforcement. Environmental regulators in California have issued a separate notice to Volkswagen, and is joining the EPA and the U.S. Justice Department in an investigation of the charges.

Volkswagen issued a statement saying it was cooperating with the investigation.

The cars, sold in the U.S. between 2009 and 2015, include such popular models as the Jetta, Beetle, Passat and the Audi A3. The EPA has ordered Volkswagen to fix the cars at its own expense, and could impose an $18 billion fine on the company, which equals $37,500 for each recalled vehicle.

Frank O'Donnell, the director of Clean Air Watch, called the charges against the automaker "truly appalling," and said it was "cheating not just car buyers but the breathing public."