Lawmakers are pushing back against a sweeping rollback of pollution regulations recently announced by the Environmental Protection Agency in response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a letter from Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey shared with BuzzFeed News.
On March 26, the EPA announced a temporary relaxing of enforcement rules, allowing factories, power plants, and other companies to stop conducting routine tests for pollutants and reporting them to the agency if they could claim the pandemic had led to a shortage of staff or other operational challenges.
“This pandemic isn’t an excuse for polluters to ignore the law and for EPA to let them get away with it,” Warren told BuzzFeed News in an email. “It’s absurd that Donald Trump and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler are using this public health and economic crisis as a cover to roll back environmental laws. The government should be focused on protecting public health now, not making it worse.”
The new EPA rule states that the agency would not issue fines for "violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance.” The guidance is retroactively effective to March 13 with no current end date in place.
Companies are still being required to maintain various records and must turn them over to the agency upon request, according to the EPA. Moreover, companies are being told to “make every effort to comply with their environmental compliance obligations.” EPA has said it will review all identified violations on a case-by-case basis.
“The claims made by the Senators’ are false,” an EPA spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in an email. “EPA’s enforcement authority and responsibility remains active. It is not a nationwide waiver of environmental rules.”
In their letter, Warren and Markey asked the EPA to respond to six questions about the rationale for the new policy and who weighed in on it, clarification on how it will be carried out, and what will factor into the decision to end it.
“Did you meet with or communicate with officials or lobbyists representing the oil and gas, coal, automobile, or other polluting industries prior to announcing this decision? Please provide a record of all meetings and communications regarding this decision with these industry representatives,” the senators wrote.
The EPA is refusing to say how many companies have requested noncompliance waivers under the new policy, E&E News has reported.
The senators also asked about whether the agency conducted any analyses to determine how the policy will impact pollution levels and what that could mean for environmental justice communities.
Some public health experts have warned that people suffering from lung damage due to poor air quality, such as from air pollution, could experience serious complications if they contract the coronavirus.