US relaxes enforcement of pollution laws amid coronavirus outbreak, puts public health in jeopardy
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has decided to go easy on businesses dealing with hazardous pollutants. Now, businesses --factories and power plants -- will be allowed to pump pollutants into the air and water and still get away with violations due to the pandemic.
The EPA will not levy fines on businesses that violate the law. But if some of their actions threaten public health, the EPA will inform the state. The agency, for its part, will "consider the circumstances" and determine whether it needs to respond or not.
The reason behind the revised law remains that disease is crushing businesses and this could, in turn, trigger a global recession. To soften the blow, the US has passed a $2 trillion stimulus package. And the move from EPA is meant to help businesses heal so they do not have to choose between protecting public health and the jobs of their employees.
"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," the EPA Administrator Andrew 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,” Wheeler added.
The new rules will apply retroactively beginning on March 13, 2020, the EPA said in a statement. It is unclear whether the new rules will remain until the COVID-19 dust settles.
Concerns over public health
Former EPA officials and environmentalists are concerned about the consequences to public health. “EPA should never relinquish its right and its obligation to act immediately and decisively when there is a threat to public health, no matter what the reason is,” Cynthia Giles, who was head of EPA enforcement during the Obama administration, told the Guardian.
Besides, many are concerned that pollutants could make people more vulnerable to COVID-19, a respiratory illness. Not to mention, those residing around factories are often communities that belong to the low-income groups of society.
In a letter written to the EPA, an environmental group said, “Excusing the potential release of excess toxic air pollutants and other pollution that exacerbates asthma, breathing difficulty and cardiovascular problems amid a pandemic that can cause respiratory failure is irresponsible from a public health perspective."
Even before the new rules were set in motion, at least 10 US oil refineries were releasing a cancer-causing chemical called benzene at levels higher than the prescribed limits. They were, however, not breaking the law but EPA expects them to reduce their emissions.
The agency has, however, added that it expects businesses to comply with the regulations, wherever reasonably practicable.
Defending EPA's move, Granta Nakayama, a partner at the law firm King & Spalding who served in the EPA's office of compliance under President George W Bush, said that the new regulations did not give companies a leeway to pollute and that it was meant only to help them navigate tough times. “It’s a very straightforward and sensible, in my view, guidance,” he told The New York Times.
According to EPA's spokesperson, Andrea Woods, the new rules are not a blanket waiver. “For situations outside of routine monitoring and reporting, the agency has reserved its authorities and will take the pandemic into account on a case-by-case basis," she told The New York Times.