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Advocates see flaws as EPA eases compliance rules in crisis

Agency says it won't penalize companies that fail to meet water, air pollution limits during pandemic

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.,
Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member,  
shown here speaking  with reporters as he arrives in the Capitol, is reviewing EPA actions during the pandemic, a spokesman says.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member, shown here speaking with reporters as he arrives in the Capitol, is reviewing EPA actions during the pandemic, a spokesman says. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Environmental advocates say they see irony in the EPA’s decision to allow unchecked air and water pollution while the nation struggles to contain a respiratory pandemic. They’re urging the agency to rescind its plan.

The agency announced on Thursday that it would not penalize companies that fail to meet water and air pollution limits during the coronavirus pandemic. Companies can petition the EPA to qualify for what the agency calls “enforcement discretion.”

The pandemic, which has upended lives and brought businesses to a standstill across the nation, is deadlier for people with existing respiratory health problems, such as asthma and pulmonary hypertension. Relaxing enforcement of pollution rules flies in the face of that reality, critics say.

“The last thing we need when everybody is worried about a respiratory virus is increased air pollution,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said Friday.

Schaeffer said it’s understandable that as the nation grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and prioritizes the safety of workers, enforcing some rules may be hard because some businesses may be closed and unable to file compliance reports.

Still, environmental groups worry that the EPA has issued a blanket waiver that polluters can take advantage of even if their violations aren’t directly tied to the pandemic as the guidance stipulates.

A spokesman for Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., said the lawmaker and his staff are reviewing the agency’s operations during the COVID-19 pandemic and will have more to say later.

Other lawmakers from the environment committees in the House and Senate did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Our concern is EPA has basically written a very broad release for pretty much all environmental requirements,” Schaeffer said, adding that there is no assurance that the agency will later follow up to ensure violations were related to the coronavirus outbreak.

The change is “not a nationwide waiver” of environmental rules and the agency retains its authority to bring enforcement actions if it deems that necessary, an EPA spokesman said in an email.

“During this extraordinary time, EPA believes that it is more important for facilities to ensure that their pollution control equipment remains up and running and the facilities are operating safely, than to carry out routine sampling and reporting,” the spokesman said in an emailed response.

As the U.S. struggles to contain the spread of the virus, authorities across the nation have directed nonessential businesses to close or limit operations and have people work remotely whenever possible.

Enforcement discretion advisories have also been issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the energy grid and pipeline regulator. Commissioner Neil Chatterjee said on March 19 that he had “directed our staff, including the Office of Enforcement, to work with companies in these trying times to provide informal guidance and advice that reasonably balances what is happening on the ground with applicable compliance requirements.”

Industry groups such as American Farm Bureau Federation, The Edison Electric Institute, National Mining Association and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the EPA policy.

In its notice, the agency said that the consequences of the pandemic “may constrain the ability of regulated entities” to perform routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analyses, training, reporting or certification. The agency said it will instead “focus its resources largely on situations that may create an acute risk” or pose immediate threat to public health or the environment.

The agency did not say when the discretionary enforcement policy would conclude, but said it will notify companies seven days beforehand.

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