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Salt Lake County has filed suit against Volkswagen in an effort to punish the German automaker for selling Utahns cars that were designed to cheat on emissions tests.

Sim Gill, Salt Lake County district attorney, said the county believes that software installed in Volkswagen vehicles not only violated local emissions testing requirements, but also contributed significantly to air pollution in the county and to the resulting health risks.

"From our perspective, we have a health crisis in our community, and we can't bury our heads in the sand," Gill said. "It's not only our legal obligation, but our moral and ethical obligation to preserve the environment for our citizens."

The Environmental Protection Agency issued Volkswagen a notice of violation in 2015 after the agency discovered that some of its vehicles advertised as containing "clean diesel" engines were programmed with defeat devices — software that circumvented emissions tests.

According to the EPA, Volkswagen officials have acknowledged the programming was included in all of its 3.0 liter diesel models in the U.S., beginning in 2009.

Gill said the county's most conservative estimates put the number of Volkswagen vehicles with defeat devices operating in Salt Lake County in the range of 2,600.

He said the current belief is that these vehicles, programmed to engage emissions controls only during testing, produced 40 percent more nitrogen oxide while operating.

Nitrogen oxide is considered by scientists to be the primary precursor chemical responsible for ozone formation. Salt Lake County exceeded the EPA's new standard for ozone pollution 34 times between 2012 and 2014, according to the American Lung Association's most recent State of the Air report.

Long-term exposure to ozone is known to cause permanent lung damage, according to the EPA.

Gill said it's likely that thousands of Salt Lake vehicles that did not meet federal, state or local emissions standards were issued emissions certificates.

The lawsuit seeks a $5,000 per-day, per-vehicle penalty to hold Volkswagen accountable for its actions, Gill said.

"Safeguarding the environment is a community responsibility — this is not something that has to happen at the national level," he said. "Where our citizens or environment are being put at risk by a third party, we will explore every option to … hold them accountable."

Gill filed the lawsuit with outside counsel from Dewsnap, King & Olsen in 3rd District Court.