Several House Democrats had harsh words for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) following an announcement it would suspend enforcement actions against companies who don’t monitor for pollution during the coronavirus outbreak.
Guidance released by the agency last week informed companies they would not face fines or other enforcement actions from the agency for failing to monitor and report their pollution.
Companies are expected to “comply with regulatory requirements, where reasonably practicable, and to return to compliance as quickly as possible,” the agency wrote in a release announcing the change, which is temporary, but has no set end date.
“This suspension of enforcement during the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis is irresponsible and neglects the Agency’s core mission to protect public health,” lawmakers in the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition (SEEC) wrote in a letter spearheaded by Rep. Mike QuigleyMichael (Mike) Bruce QuigleyIllinois governor endorses Biden one day before primary Progressive groups push Supreme Court to livestream arguments during coronavirus shutdown Key Democrat urges Supreme Court to livestream oral arguments MORE (D-Ill.).
Environmentalists have raised concerns that without monitoring, companies may emit a number of air and water pollutants with little consequence.
Lawmakers pointed to air pollution emitted by the oil industry in particular, one of many industries that asked for a suspension of some environmental regulations during the pandemic.
“The health impacts of these pollutants are well-established, and exposure is particularly dangerous for those with respiratory conditions. We are currently facing a severe respiratory pandemic, taking lives and hospitalizing thousands—at this moment, communities need more protections from toxic pollution, not less. Waiving environmental enforcement will only add to the severity of the COVID-19 crisis,” lawmakers wrote.
The EPA has pushed back against earlier characterizations of the law as a nationwide waiver of environmental rules.
“The policy does not say that the COVID-19 pandemic will excuse exceedances of pollutant limitations in permits, regulations, and statutes. EPA expects regulated entities to comply with all obligations and if they do not, the policy says that EPA will consider the pandemic, on a case-by-case basis, when determining an appropriate response,” an EPA official said by email.
“The SEEC claims are false and it is apparent they didn’t even read our guidance. EPA’s enforcement authority and responsibility remains active,” the person added.
Companies are expected to keep records of their own noncompliance, along with identifying how the coronavirus was a factor.
But lawmakers said the pandemic only heightens the need for strong enforcement, especially given that many polluting industries set up shop in the same low-income areas, exacerbating health issues in poor communities and communities of color.
“Your broad suspension of enforcement is unprecedented and dangerous, especially given the pandemic we face. While our doctors and nurses work urgently to keep people healthy and manage hospital overflows, you are granting polluting industries a free pass to contaminate our air and water, likely adding patients to healthcare providers’ already overwhelming caseloads,” they wrote.