TTU’s glider kit emission study called into question

By Amye Anderson
UCBJ Managing Editor

COOKEVILLE – All activity between Fitzgerald Glider Kits and Tennessee Tech University is now on hold as the university launches an investigation amid allegations of “misconduct in research”.

Minutes from the university’s Faculty Senate Business meeting held Jan. 29, show members held a “Fitzgerald/EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) Discussion”. Tom Brewer, Dr. Bharat Soni, and Dr. Ben Moore were in attendance for that discussion regarding their involvement during the course of the emissions research study the school performed for Fitzgerald in 2016.

One day later, on Jan. 30, the faculty senate, which serves as a representative voice of the teaching and research faculty at Tennessee Tech, approved a resolution regarding the research, calling on university president Phil Oldham to “immediately intervene to protect the solid and excellent research reputation of the university.”

The proposed resolution also listed a series of recommended actions to further distance Tennessee Tech from the 2016 emissions study and repair the university’s reputation damaged, faculty senate members say, “because of a study funded by Fitzgerald Glider Kits and used to influence federal policy.”

“No university employees have been suspended … I do not anticipate any further university statements being made during the inquiry or investigation.” – Phil Oldham, Tennessee Tech President

In early January, representatives from the Environmental Defense Fund, WE ACT, and the Environmental Law and Policy Center, among others, submitted documents to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, outlining their concerns with the repeal of Phase II emissions standards; emphasizing the research used to help support the repeal of that measure, and conducted by Tennessee Tech, was “unsupported and flawed.”

Those representatives claim the university’s research team did not measure particulate matter (PM) levels and accused the university of attempting to draw conclusions concerning PM levels through visual inspection.

“The report’s conclusion that “[a]ll vehicles met the standard” for PM is simply not supported by TTU’s testing because TTU conceded (only after follow-up inquiry) that it did not even measure PM emission levels for any test vehicles,” their letter stated.

The group also calls into question the relationship between Tennessee Tech and Fitzgerald automotive companies. According to the university’s 2015-16 Office of Research Annual Report, Dr. Benjamin Mohr was listed as the principal investigator (PI) for the project; performing the environmental and economic study of glider kit assemblers. That same report shows Fitzgerald reportedly shelled out $70,056 for the study. Then, in the 2016-17 academic year, Fitzgerald reportedly paid an additional $12,500 activation amount to the university for the research study, according to the Academic Affairs Highlights report for that year.

In August 2017, a public-private partnership was announced between the two organizations, along with Tennessee College of Applied Technology Livingston. The three organizations would then offer an educational training facility slated for the Fitzgerald Technology Complex in White County – the Tennessee Tech Center for Intelligent Mobility. That partnership was announced after the research study in question took place.

Meanwhile, Pruitt’s steps to repeal not only the Phase II ruling but to roll back several other Obama-era environmental policies have been called into question by health and environmental groups.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Fuel Efficiency Standards for Medium- and Heavy-Duty Engines and Vehicles, also known as Phase II, treats glider kits as new motor vehicles. Gliders often consist of a new chassis but contain used engines and, sometimes, other major mechanical components.

This, manufacturers claim, is more fuel- and energy-efficient based on a series of adjustments made to the engines. The reuse of engines, they add, reduces the amount of energy and resources needed to manufacture brand new engines. Glider manufacturers also often tout their products experience less downtime than trucks with new engines – which, some truckers complain, can be temperamental given the number of sensors and computer parts involved with modern engine operation and the increased likelihood they will malfunction.

Along with other similar manufacturers – Indiana Phoenix Inc. and Harrison Truck Centers Inc., and the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association, who each submitted letters to the EPA – Fitzgerald submitted a letter to Pruitt last summer stating gliders couldn’t be considered new trucks because they didn’t fall within the Clean Air Act’s definition of a “motor vehicle.”

READ: Fitzgerald awaits EPA repeal decision

“In addition, (Fitzgerald’s letter) also raises concerns that the EPA relied upon ‘unsupported assumptions rather than data’ with the regard to the emission impacts of glider vehicles,” Pruitt’s response to Fitzgerald’s letter read, in part. “In light of these issues, the EPA has decided to revisit the provisions in the Phase 2 Rule that relate to gliders.”

The public comment portion of the repeal process closed in early January and no specific timeline as to when a decision could be made has been publicized.

Since then, the results of the Tennessee Tech study and the university’s relationship with Fitzgerald, as well as Fitzgerald’s political ties, have received sharp criticism from faculty and media alike. Last week, the New York Times published a lengthy, in-depth article regarding the study and related political dealings.

A letter to Congressman Diane Black dated June 15, 2017, signed by both TTU President Phil Oldham and Brewer, noted the results of the university-performed study. The UCBJ has requested a copy of that study but was not provided those documents prior to publication.

The letter to Black states, “Each vehicle was evaluated for fuel efficiency, carbon monoxide, particulate matter emissions and nitrous oxide. The results of the emissions test were compared with the 2010 EPA emissions standards for HDVs (heavy-duty vehicles). Our research showed that optimized and remanufactured 2002-2007 engine and OEM ‘certified’ engines performed equally as well and, in some cases, out-performed the OEM engines.

“While none of the vehicles met the NOx (nitrous oxide) standard, a glider remanufactured engine achieved the best result of any engine tested,” according to the letter submitted by Oldham and Brewer.

During the Jan. 29 meeting, Brewer reportedly told faculty senate members that Oldham reviewed the letter but he didn’t recall Oldham asking any questions about the study or its findings. Per the study’s findings cited in the letter to Black, the research team estimated glider kit HDVs would “emit less than 12 percent of the total NOx and PM emissions, not 50 percent, for all Class 8 HDVs.”

At the Jan. 29 faculty senate meeting, members grilled Soni, Brewer, and Mohr. It is unclear what Soni’s role in the research study was. Soni provided a brief recap of the research study to senate faculty members; adding that those involved with this research complied with rules and regulations but sometimes man and materials make errors.

Brewer reportedly stands by the conclusions of the study. In 2016, he says he was approached by Fitzgerald who requested help with conducting the study. A research team was established and a proposal for the study was developed and submitted. Brewer says an EPA-approved handheld field testing device was used to test the exhaust of 13 vehicles, five of which were brand new.

Mohr, a Civil and Environmental Engineer, served as the original PI on the project but withdrew from that role late last month. However, he explained to board members that he was not able to review the data and report before it was sent to others. Brewer reportedly told board members he drafted the letter for Oldham to sign.

During the course of the research study, Brewer was named as a PI; this despite not being listed in the original proposal. Mohr told members he didn’t know of the change and was never notified about it. It is unclear who made that change.

According to the minutes from that meeting, Brewer claimed he took the data because he brought the request to the university and is the university representative but was not a part of the activation. Mohr was reportedly used as the engineering credential for the project. Meanwhile, Brewer says he was in attendance at all of the tests. The information was then analyzed by a first-year graduate engineering student though no one seemed able to clarify if an advisor assisted the student.

According to Mohr, Brewer and Mark Davis wrote the report. Faculty senate members then questioned a potential conflict of interest between the university and Fitzgerald in light of the education center relationship between TTU, TCAT, and Fitzgerald.

“Mr. Fitzgerald said he had acreage in Sparta airport with which we could develop an automotive center,” Brewer recalled, according to the meeting minutes. “This was offered to us by Fitzgerald about two months after the report (was) submitted and had nothing to do with our research work for them.”

When asked if someone recognized a potential conflict of interest, Brewer stated: “We never thought there was a correlation.”

All activity between the university and Fitzgerald is currently on hold, pending results of the ongoing investigation. Dr. Sharon Huo was asked by Oldham to serve as Research Integrity Officer. According to the minutes from the Feb. 5 faculty senate business meeting, Oldham has indicated he will not make any statement until after the investigations are complete because of “it could prejudice the outcome.” He has also indicated that he felt it appropriate that the letter sent to Black came from the president of the university.

The study process and ethics are being investigated by the committee and a report is due within 60 days of an inquiry committee’s formation. Soni is reportedly not involved in the investigation. However, Brewer, whose credentials to be Director of the Water Center and PI in on the Fitzgerald study has been called into question, has not been suspended, pending the results of the investigation. Faculty senate member David Huddleston noted that any retraction of results would be premature, but that it would be responsible to let stakeholders (Fitzgerald, EPA, and Black) aware of the inquiry and investigation.

A letter from Oldham, dated Feb. 15, states: “Our Tennessee Tech community shares the desire to ensure the academic research integrity of the university along with our reputation as an honest broker of knowledge and research initiatives.”

“No university employees have been suspended,” said Oldham. “I do not anticipate any further university statements being made during the inquiry or investigation.”

The UCBJ contacted Tennessee Tech for comments regarding the study and the investigation and will provide updates as that information becomes available.

Amye Anderson is the managing editor of the Upper Cumberland Business Journal and can be reached via email. Send an email.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.