Critics say the agency has abdicated its duty to act in the interests of public health.
Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist appointed by Donald Trump to head the Environmental Protection Agency, announced Thursday a broad suspension of environmental rules.
Citing hardships of fighting the coronavirus pandemic, the EPA is simply asking industry giants to “act responsibly” and document how violations were caused by the virus’s disruption. There will be no punishment for failing to comply, and no timeline or tentative end date was given for the new policy.
“The 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 in a statement. “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.”
Critics say the EPA has abdicated its duty to act in the interests of public health. Cynthia Giles, who held Wheeler’s position under the Obama administration, sharply criticized the action.
“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,” she wrote in a statement.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg responded on social media. “The EPA uses this global pandemic to create loopholes for destroying the environment,” she tweeted. “This is a schoolbook example for what we need to start looking out for.”
Big Oil and other pollution-heavy industries have been lobbying the EPA to suspend enforcement on several environmental regulations due to the pandemic. The American Petroleum Institute (API) sought an out from repairing leaky equipment and monitoring nearby water sources for contamination. Others tried to use the pandemic as a “force majeure” clause to nullify legal settlements they had signed with the EPA. The broad language of the memo makes all that possible and more.
“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,” wrote Eric Schaeffer, a former director at the EPA.
This is the latest in a string of efforts by the White House administration to push hard right policies under the guise of the coronavirus pandemic, from more stringent border controls to attacking organized labor, to stonewalling congressional oversight.