EPA non-enforcement policy causes ripple effects

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On March 26, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a policy that set new guidelines for large polluters to monitor themselves for an undetermined period of time during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The memo stated the EPA would not issue fines for violations of certain air, water and hazardous-waste-reporting requirements. The policy cites the decision as a response to COVID-19. 

The order states that companies should self-report if they break the law but won’t face any consequences by doing so. 

The memo states: “In general, the EPA does not expect to seek penalties 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 and the entity provides supporting documentation to the EPA upon request.”

EPA’s decision prompted an immediate rebuke from former agency officials and environmentalists, many of who characterized it as a waiver of the nation’s environmental rules.

Despite EPA’s longstanding recognition that environmental monitoring and reporting requirements protect public health, the EPA failed, in the midst of a pandemic, to consider how this policy could harm our health.

Since President Donald Trump has taken office, there have been nearly 100 cuts to environmental regulations that intended to protect human health.

This policy is just one more example of how the Trump administration is using a national crisis to benefit corporate shareholders and cause greater harm to our people, in a way that will result in more illness, cancer and death.

On May 7, EPA Commissioner Andrew Wheeler boasted in a tweet that under Trump, “EPA has finalized 60 deregulatory actions.” Each of these actions comes at a great health and economic cost to regular working New Yorkers, especially the thousands of people who live near large polluters.

In order to operate a large industrial facility, companies must acquire permits to pollute.

The limits on how much pollution a company is allowed to put into the air, water and soil, how often a company reports what they pollute and how they measure the level of toxins are all set by the federal government. Companies self-report to the enforcement agencies, and if emitting above the limit or if testing protocol isn’t consistent with regulation, or if there is a spill or accidental air release, they can be found in violation of the law, forced to make changes and/or pay fines.

Reporting allows for the federal and state government, as well as community groups like ours, to take swift action when necessary.

Suspending federal laws that are put in place to protect public health will put more New Yorkers’ lives at risk. A recent study of Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found coronavirus patients in areas that had high levels of air pollution before the pandemic are more likely to die from the infection than patients in cleaner parts of the country.

Further emissions from polluters in communities will exacerbate an already untenable public health problem in neighborhoods throughout the state.

In response to an April letter from over 50 environmental, labor and community organizations, New York Attorney General Letitia James, with a coalition of nine state attorney generals, filed a lawsuit against the EPA.

This lawsuit, which was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, includes the attorneys general of California, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Virginia and Vermont.

The lawsuit argues that the EPA’s memo is overly broad, lacks transparency and accountability and will result in higher pollution emissions by industry and corresponding negative impacts on public health and the environment.

Additionally, increased air pollution and the failure to report excessive air pollution could pose significantly added danger to individuals with existing respiratory illnesses (e.g., asthma).

This circumstance is made more troubling by the EPA’s statement in the policy that it may waive enforcement even in situations where a polluter’s non-compliance presents an imminent threat to public health or the environment.

James has shown that New Yorkers will not stand for the Trump Administration’s callous disregard for the health and dignity of our communities. New Yorkers need more elected officials, like James, who will stand for environmental justice communities who have long dealt with abuse, neglect and harm caused by corporations who put their profit lines over public health. 

Rebecca Newberry is the executive director of the Clean Air Coalition. This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. For more information about the organization, visit their website at SustainableTompkins.org.

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