The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency would be suspending enforcement of environmental laws.
The fact that this administration’s EPA would use this global emergency as an excuse for letting corporations get away with polluting is almost inconceivable. Yet here we are. Since the Trump administration came into office, I’ve watched EPA descend fairly quickly into almost blatant corporate cronyism, monitoring moves like appointing an oil and gas industry advocate as the agency head, reversing course on a planned ban of a dangerous pesticide, and allowing a marked increase of another dangerous pesticide in our water supply by weakening safeguards. But this takes the cake.
This was designated a temporary policy, but no end date has been set. For an agency with “environmental protection” in the name, this is an abdication of EPA’s duty.
Going above and beyond for industry
The agency had been under pressure from several industries, including the oil industry, to suspend enforcement of a number of environmental regulations due to the pandemic before this announcement was made, with several industries also asking for extensions on deadlines to meet various environmental goals outlined in legal settlements they had signed with EPA.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler shared in a statement that the reasoning behind the decision was that EPA “recognizes 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.”
However, the memo signed by the Administrator goes far beyond what industry was even asking for — the statement does not even protect EPA's obligation to act in the event of an imminent threat to public health.
Cynthia Giles, who headed the EPA’s Office of Enforcement during the Obama administration said, “EPA should never relinquish its right and its obligation to act immediately and decisively when there is threat to public health, no matter what the reason is. I am not aware of any instance when EPA ever relinquished this fundamental authority as it does in this memo.”
A one-way street
Critics have said that it’s not unreasonable to refrain from enforcement on a case-by-case basis if companies are short-staffed because they’re working to keep their employees safe and at home. But chemical plants and other facilities that are continuing to operate right now should also be able to comply with environmental laws.
New research has come out linking air pollution to higher COVID-19 death rates. EPA should be ensuring that polluting industries are held to an even higher standard right now, not left to their own devices.
Even more upsetting? While EPA makes excuses for why corporations can’t be forced to comply with environmental protection standards during this crisis, they are making no extra allowances for the public to respond to various proposals to weaken environmental standards, refusing to budge on comment deadlines and proceeding with a number of deregulatory actions.
Just last week, EPA announced approval of a pesticide that the agency itself has determined is likely to cause cancer and to drift hundreds of feet from where it is applied — and did so by sidestepping the usual public input process for the decision. The herbicide’s registration was opened for public comment, but not listed in the federal register.
Not so fast, EPA
If EPA thought they could sneak this announcement through while the world is preoccupied with the ongoing pandemic and everything that comes with it, they’re wrong. Public uproar was immediate, and advocacy groups sprung into action to combat this egregious move by the agency.
PAN’s partners at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) along with the Environmental Justice Health Alliance (EJHA) and the Climate Justice Alliance have filed a petition seeking the issuance of an emergency final rule protecting public health, in response to the agency’s non-enforcement policy.
The petition requests that EPA issue a rule requiring companies that take advantage of the non-enforcement policy to publicly disclose when they stop monitoring or reporting their air and water pollution emissions, along with a detailed justification for doing so. The petition also urges EPA to notify the public by publishing that information within one day of notice from the companies.
EPA hasn’t yet responded, but the pressure is on. Stay tuned for ways to take action.