SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois head of a prominent African-American organization has asked the Rauner administration to spend a larger portion of a $109 million settlement from an air emissions scandal on programs that would cut down on pollution that affects children.

Teresa Haley, president of the Illinois NAACP, urged the state Environmental Protection Agency to allocate additional cash won through the legal settlement over Volkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal to fund items that would directly reduce air pollution, such as electric school buses.

Illinois NAACP president Teresa Haley. (Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police via Facebook)

During the first of three EPA-sponsored public meetings on how the VW money should be spent, Haley said African-American communities are “not being informed” about the potential benefits of the Volkswagen money. She said black communities in Springfield and East St. Louis are examples of areas where air pollution aggravates health conditions, such as asthma, and yet the state isn’t focusing on helping them.

“We’re being taken advantage of again,” said Haley, who added she’s had asthma nearly her whole life.

“Communities of color are at a disadvantage,” she said in an interview after the meeting. “No one’s being a voice for them.”

Advocates for environmental, health and social justice organizations pushed for the public meetings amid concerns the Rauner administration was establishing plans on how to spend the VW money without enough public input. The state’s initial plans were to replace old diesel-generated train and boat engines with cleaner-burning diesel engines, while critics complain the money should be used on programs that would cut down on air pollution from cars and buses.

Haley noted that $71 million in the EPA’s proposed spending plan is going toward locomotive and tugboat engines. While EPA officials and business groups have said replacing those old diesel engines can greatly reduce air pollution, Haley questions their motives.

“They’re in it to make a buck,” she said about the business groups advocating for diesel train and boat engines. The Illinois Manufacturers’ Association and the Illinois Chamber of Commerce are backing the Rauner administration plan.

Haley was one of more than a dozen people who spoke at the Springfield meeting. Two other public meetings will be held May 24 in East St. Louis and on May 30 in Chicago. Others who attended the Springfield hearing questioned why the EPA wasn’t emphasizing electric vehicles, including electric-charging stations and electric buses for school children or public transit.

Brad Frost, manager of community relations for Illinois EPA, defended the state agency’s emphasis on trains and boats.

“We have a lot of opportunities to direct funds to achieve the largest emissions reductions,” Frost said.

“The plan should not just rely on clean diesel,” countered state Rep. Anna Moeller, a Democrat from Elgin.

Some speakers mocked the term “clean diesel.”

“Having grandchildren, I don’t want them on clean diesel buses,” Josef Appell, a retiree who traveled to the Springfield meeting from his home in Freeport.

Frost said the EPA will evaluate comments made during the meetings in Springfield, East St. Louis and Chicago as well as about 1,600 comments submitted to the state agency over the past couple of months.

He said in an interview there was no hard deadline for seeking approval of the state plan from a national trustee who is overseeing how the VW settlement cash is being spent. However, EPA Director Alec Messina previously said he’d like to move quickly and have money beginning to be spent by the fall.