The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suspended enforcement of environmental laws during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, signaling to companies that they will not face any penalties for polluting Americans' air or water.
In a remarkable move that has surprised former EPA officials, the Trump administration said it will not wait for compliance with routine contamination monitoring and reporting and will not seek penalties for violating these rules.
Polluters will be able to ignore environmental laws as long as they can claim in some way that these violations were caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the event of an imminent threat to public health, EPA will defer to states and “consider the circumstances” on whether to intervene.
There is no set end date for this stay of execution.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the coronavirus had made it difficult for companies to protect workers and the public while adhering to clean air and water rules.
"This temporary policy is designed to provide compliance discretion under current and extraordinary conditions, while ensuring that facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment," said Wheeler.
The new stance has caused uproar among former EPA officials and environmental groups who warn that the sweep will pose a greater risk to public health amid the pandemic.
"EPA should never waive its right and obligation to act immediately and decisively when there is a threat to public health, no matter what the reason," said Cynthia Giles, who was chief enforcement officer of the EPA during the Obama administration .
“I know of no instance in which the EPA has waived this fundamental authority as it does in this memo. This note amounts to a nationwide moratorium on enforcing the nation's environmental laws and is an abdication of EPA's responsibility to protect the public. "
A letter sent to the EPA by Giles and a number of other environmental advocates asserts that while it may be "reasonable in limited circumstances" to relax some enforcement during the crisis, the blanket exemption from environmental requirements poses a danger to the American public.
There is a particular concern about air pollution emitted by industrial facilities, which are predominantly found in communities with large numbers of low-income people and people of color. Covid-19 attacks the respiratory system, and its spread causes states to fight for more ventilators to prevent the death of thousands of infected people.
Air pollution that industrial plants will not have to monitor damages the respiratory system, which is especially dangerous for already-at-risk populations who can also become infected with Covid-19, which attacks the lungs.
"Excusing the possible release of excess toxic air pollutants and other pollution that exacerbates asthma, shortness of breath and cardiovascular problems in the midst of a pandemic that can cause respiratory failure is irresponsible from a public health perspective," notes the letter.
"It's not about reporting and paperwork," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project.
"If you fly blind because you are not monitoring pollution and the public fly blind because you are not reporting it, a lot of the problems that come to light when you do those things will remain hidden," Schaeffer said.
In one example, oil refineries will not be required to report and reduce their cancerous benzene emissions. Ten refineries, most of them in Texas, have already been exceeding the limits.
The relaxation of environmental laws follows lobbying by the American Petroleum Institute, a group in the oil and gas industry, which feels the letter from the EPA this week calling for the suspension of regulations requiring the repair of leaking equipment, as well as control of pollution.
EPA's move goes beyond this request, though the regulator said it expects companies to comply with the laws "where reasonably possible" and that it will not tolerate flagrant and willful violations of the law.
However, Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, indicated that the measure can be challenged in court. "While there may be no limit to the extent to which Trump and Wheeler are willing to reach out to corporate polluters, there is a limit to what the public will allow," Brune said. "This illegal and reckless action will not go unnoticed," he concluded.