Air pollution

Waiving Environmental Rules

Is the EPA in America letting polluters off the hook due to the coronavirus?

We cannot squander this moment.

The world is changing, fast, and there are many uncertainties about what life will look like on the other side. But one thing that is certain is that we cannot allow the work of decades to be reversed in a moment.

As Lisa Friedman wrote in the New York Times, the Environmental Protection Agency ‘announced a sweeping relaxation of environmental rules in response to the coronavirus pandemic, allowing power plants, factories and other facilities to determine for themselves if they are able to meet legal requirements on reporting air and water pollution.’

Air pollution

The EPA statement says this is a temporary measure to protect the health and safety of the public as well as their staff. But there is no end date attached to the policy.

While the policy applies to civil violations, not intentional criminal violations of law, they will not ‘seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting obligations’.

‘EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognises challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements.

This temporary policy is designed to provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions, while ensuring facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment.’

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler

Rebecca Beitsch writing in The Hill notes that ‘it’s not unreasonable to refrain from environmental enforcement on a case-by-case basis when companies are unable to comply with the letter of the law, but many were alarmed by the breadth of Thursdays memo.’

‘This EPA statement is essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules for the indefinite future. It tells companies across the country that they will not face enforcement even if they emit unlawful air and water pollution in violation of environmental laws, so long as they claim that those failures are in some way ’caused’ by the virus pandemic.

And it allows them an out on monitoring too, so we may never know how bad the violating pollution was.’

Cynthia Giles, Head of EPA’s Office of Enforcement under President Obama

The EPAs decision came after the American Petroleum Institute and other industries asked for a suspension of rules and extensions of deadlines ‘in the face of unforeseen circumstances’.

‘It is not clear why refineries, chemical plants, and other facilities that continue to operate and keep their employees on the production line will no longer have the staff or time they need to comply with environmental laws.’

Eric Schaeffer, a former director of civil enforcement at EPA who is now with the Environmental Integrity Project

We agree it is important to keep your workforce safe from the spread of Covid-19. But not at the cost of long-term damage to public health and safety – not to mention the health of the planet – that will result if companies don’t need to meet environmental standards during this crisis.

We must be able to do both.

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