The US Department of Justice (DOJ) is suing eBay, alleging that it has sold more than 343,000 ‘rolling coal’ devices and other equipment that deliberately pollutes the environment and violates the Clean Air Act. The retailer, reportedly facing a fine of more than $5000 (£4000) for each alleged transaction adding up to potentially $1.9 billion, denies the charges and claims that it banned the sales of these devices.

Rolling coal devices modify a diesel engine to emit sooty, black clouds from its exhaust. These devices defeat vehicle emission controls significantly increasing the emission of pollutants including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.

Rolling coal, a sort of anti-environmental protest, has been reported when drivers of modified vehicles pass cyclists and electric vehicles and release clouds of sooty exhaust. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) criminalised the practice of rolling coal in 2014, which seems to be confined to North America, with large fines. Until recently, these devices have been easy to procure through online retailers, selling for between $200–$500.

While eBay claimed that it worked closely with the DOJ to block illicit listings, the DOJ’s complaint included screenshots of emission tampering devices that were available on their platform. The retailer is also accused of allowing the sale of other banned substances – including dangerous methylene chloride paint removers and prohibited pesticides.

eBay isn’t the first company to be hit with a lawsuit over these defeat devices – several others who sold them and related equipment have already been forced to pay up to $1 million for breaking the law. The EPA has said it will hold retailers responsible for the unlawful sale of products that are not only harmful for the environment but also pose serious public health concerns.