The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has suspended its enforcement of environmental laws during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, signaling to companies they will not face any sanction for polluting the air or water of Americans.
In an extraordinary move that has stunned former EPA officials, the Trump administration said it will not expect compliance with the routine monitoring and reporting of pollution and won’t pursue penalties for breaking these rules.
Polluters will be able to ignore environmental laws as long as they can claim in some way these violations were caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the event of an imminent threat to public health, the EPA will defer to the states and “consider the circumstances” over whether it should intervene. There is no end date set for this dropping of enforcement.“EPA should never relinquish its right and its obligation to act immediately and decisively when there is threat to public health, no matter what the reason is,” said Cynthia Giles, who was head of EPA enforcement during the Obama administration. “I am not aware of any instance when EPA ever relinquished this fundamental authority as it does in this memo. This memo amounts to a nationwide moratorium on enforcing the nation’s environmental laws and is an abdication of EPA’s responsibility to protect the public.”
The blanket waiver of environmental requirements poses a danger to the American public. There is particular concern over air pollution emitted by industrial facilities, which are predominantly located in communities with large numbers of low-income people and people of color. Covid-19 attacks the respiratory system, with its spread causing states to scramble for more ventilators to prevent thousands of infected people from dying. The air pollution that industrial plants will not have to monitor damages the respiratory system, which is especially dangerous for already at-risk populations who may also become infected with Covid-19, which attacks the lungs. oil refineries will not be compelled to report on and reduce their carcinogenic benzene emissions. Ten refineries, most of them in Texas, have already been exceeding limits.
Meanwhile, the car industry has been accused of trying to use the coronavirus crisis to avert stricter environmental regulation, after correspondence showed carmakers had lobbied the EU to defer impending laws. The European carmakers’ association, ACEA, and other groups representing the supply chain called on the EU to delay implementing regulations because the pandemic had affected its “plans to comply”. Laws due to come into effect include tougher targets on vehicle CO2 emissions. In a letter to the EU commission president the groups said production and sales of cars had stalled in many countries and companies were facing a cash crisis.
Campaigners described the call as shameless. Greenpeace UK’s executive director, John Sauven, said: “Many industries are facing difficulties during this challenging period that require governments and corporations to protect their workers. But it would be a mistake to use this crisis as a reason to roll back on environmental regulations. One, it won’t suddenly restart car sales, and two, tackling one crisis can’t be done at the expense of another one.”