The Environmental Protection Agency this week waived enforcement on many of its health and environmental protections, offering what the agency said is relief for companies that might have trouble complying due to business operations being impacted by the new coronavirus.
Citing possible staffing issues, the oil and gas industry was a leading sector that requested a relaxation of environmental and public health enforcement during the COVID-19 outbreak, according to the Associated Press.
In a statement, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the open-ended waiver was temporary and retroactive to March 13.
“EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but 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,” Wheeler said. “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.”
The decision brought quick rebuke from environmental protection groups.
“The EPA’s decision to stop enforcing key provisions of our environmental law puts Texans’ air, water and health at the mercy of polluters,” Catherine Fraser, Clean Air Associate for Environment Texas, said in a statement. “The whole framework of the Clean Air Act depends on monitoring and reporting, without which we have no idea what facilities are releasing into the air we breathe.”
The federal agency’s move covered a range of activity, eliminating fines and other civil penalties for companies that failed to monitor, report or meet other requirements for releasing hazards. Civil and criminal enforcement of polluters under the Trump administration has fallen dramatically, according to the Associated Press.
“This is particularly true in the context of oil and gas industry operations,” Fraser said, adding that “industrial facilities released over 135 million pounds of illegal air pollution, in violation of their Clean Air Act permits in 2018.”
Former Obama-era EPA chief Gina McCarthy, now president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Associated Press the announcement was “an open license to pollute.”
The administration was “taking advantage of an unprecedented public health crisis to do favors for polluters that threaten public health,” McCarthy said, in part of what was a flurry of condemnation from environmental groups to the announcement.
Fraser called Wheeler’s new policy “reckless” and said it should not exist.
“As our nation struggles to contain the coronavirus, health is at the forefront of everyone’s mind; right now, the public cares even more deeply about the air we breathe and the water we drink,” Fraser said. “EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler should rescind this policy immediately, and Congress should exercise its oversight authority to ensure the safety of our air and water.”