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Fate of thousands of recalled Volkswagens stored in Brainerd worries neighbors

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Thousands of recalled Volkswagen diesels are being stored in Brainerd.
At the Brainerd Industrial Center, a former paper mill, thousands of recalled Volkswagen diesel vehicles are being stored.
Steve Fines for MPR News

Julie Kletscher stands next to a chain link fence topped by barbed wire, peering at row after row of Volkswagens parked side by side.

Kletscher lives across busy Mill Avenue from the Brainerd Industrial Center, the former paper mill where thousands of recalled Volkswagen's are being stored. The Volkswagens are part of a massive recall launched by the company to settle allegations that it violated the Clean Air Act. 

She and other neighbors say it's been difficult getting information about how many recalled vehicles will end up here and what will happen to them.

"I can only hope that they resolve or figure out what they're going to do with these cars sooner than later," Kletscher said. "Because I can't imagine what that's going to look like in 10 years if it sits there that long. We'll have ourselves an old junk shop across the road."

Volkswagen admitted installing computer software on its vehicles that allowed them to emit air pollution over the legal limit but still pass federal emissions tests.

Thousands of recalled Volkswagen diesels are being stored in Brainerd.
Some neighbors say they don't want noise and dust from recycling so many vehicles.
Steve Fines for MPR News

"They were able to market their vehicles for having a better fuel economy and also they were able to market these cars as being a good environmental choice," said Risikat Adesaogun, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Volkswagen hopes to fix the cars' emissions systems and resell them. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must approve a fix first, Adesaogun said.

"So right now, we're sort of in limbo," she said. "The cars could get repaired at some point. From there, the company would be able to potentially resell them. But if they don't get repaired and resold, they could be recycled."

That worries some of the neighbors like Bob and Bonnie Gillespie, who don't want noise and dust from recycling so many vehicles.

Gary Scheeler, Julie Klescher, Bonnie Gillespie, and Bob Gillespie
Neighbors, from left, Gary Scheeler, Julie Kletscher, Bonnie Gillespie, and Bob Gillespie are unhappy about the storage lot.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

"It's just not a place for something like that," Bonnie Gillespie said. "This is a nice neighborhood. We have a ballpark across the street. We're just a really family-oriented neighborhood. I just can't understand why it's all over there."

Adesaogun said the industrial center has a valid stormwater permit and there aren't any major environmental concerns about the site. But she said officials don't really know the condition of the vehicles.

The Brainerd Industrial Center referred calls to Volkswagen headquarters, which sent a statement saying the vehicles are being stored on an interim basis and are routinely maintained. Vehicles not modified because of their age, condition or other reasons will be "responsibly recycled," the company stated.

CJ Vandeputte, internet sales manager at the Volkswagen dealer in Brainerd, said he thinks this site was chosen as a collection point because of its central location.

"They're being trucked here from the Twin Cities, from Fargo," Vandeputte said. "We think that part of it is because there's a rail that runs in there as well. So if they were going to another state, they would have the option to be shipped by rail as well."

A fix has been approved for the 2015 model year vehicles and some are leaving to be sold, Vandeputte said. "As the modification becomes available for more vehicles, we'll just continue to buy them, continue to fix them and continue to put them back on the market." 

It's hard to know just how many vehicles will be stored here. Vandeputte said there are about 5,000 now, and he doesn't expect the number to grow.

Row after row of Volkswagens are parked side by side in Brainerd.
Behind a chain link fence topped by barbed wire, row after row of Volkswagens are parked side by side in Brainerd, Minn., on June 8.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

There were about 9,600 registered Volkswagens in Minnesota, according to the MPCA. The company is still working to buy back many of those cars, and some owners are still driving their recalled Volkswagens.

In the meantime, the state is trying to figure out what to do with its share of the Volkswagen settlement — about $47 million. The earliest the money is expected to be available is fall of 2018.

The MPCA has held three meetings to get public input on how the settlement should be spent. A technical stakeholder group also met for the first time this month.

Minnesotans can weigh in by going to the MPCA website at and taking a survey.

The money could be used to help promote principles such as environmental justice, reducing the public health impacts of nitrogen oxide pollution and investing in alternative fuels and clean energy, Adesaogun said.

"We have lots viewpoints from across the state but I think the biggest overarching thing that we've been seeing is people want the biggest bang for their buck," she said. "Folks really want to figure out how can we achieve the greatest good and the biggest nitrogen oxide pollution reductions for the least amount of money."