By Adrian Shelley, Public Citizen
Seven months after Hurricane Harvey, Texas public health experts noticed that Gov. Greg Abbott had failed to lift a suspension of environmental rules he’d enacted during the devastating 2017 storm.
Thousands of Gulf Coast industrial sites were still running without rules banning excessive air and water pollution. The experts wrote Abbott and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality asking them to reinstate the rules protecting public health. Two days later, the state complied.
What took so long? And what about the tons of air, water, and hazardous waste pollution during those seven months? With an absence of official rules, could any company claim immunity from enforcement?
Last week, the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), led by coal lobbyist–turned Administrator Andrew Wheeler, offered polluters across the U.S. a similar deal. If industry members tell EPA that the coronavirus caused them to pollute, EPA will forgive a wide range of environmental obligations.
Health advocates – including Public Citizen – immediately cried foul, branding the action a “license to pollute.” Last week, he Natural Resources Defense Council, Public Citizen and other environmental and public health groups petitioned the EPA to issue a rule requiring companies that take advantage of the policy to publicly disclose—in writing—when they stop monitoring or reporting their air and water pollution emissions, and to explain why. The petition urges EPA to notify the public within one day of notice from the companies.
The petition also calls on the EPA to issue this final rule within seven days, as any further delay would likely lead to widespread noncompliance in the meantime,resulting in serious damage to public health.
The EPA claims it is only offering relief from certain monitoring and reporting obligations. In fact, routine monitoring and reporting is only one subject of the EPA’s new policy. It also covers reporting requirements and milestones contained in already negotiated settlement agreements and consent decrees. The new EPA policy also clearly states that the agency will consider leniency for failures of air emission controls, wastewater or waste treatment systems, and other facility equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Failure of emission controls means more air pollution. The EPA has told companies that if they link air pollution to an emissions control failure caused by coronavirus, then EPA will look the other way.
This is, in the words of former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, “a license to pollute.”
The American Petroleum Institute campaigned hard for the rule suspension. The EPA rolled over and complied, and the public sees that. This decision sends a clear message to polluters and the public that there will be less oversight of pollution, period.
Instead of offering polluters a free pass, the EPA could have assessed which industries are at risk and developed a plan to limit the damage. All Americans are making sacrifices during the pandemic. Why should polluters get a handout?
If this action leads to more pollution in America, we all will suffer. One only need to look to Texas, where industry profits often take priority over public health, to see the downside of weak environmental enforcement. Those living near industrial polluters are doubly vulnerable. They have less access to health care, poorer overall health and more risk factors such as existing respiratory ailments. Burdening this vulnerable population with more air pollution could increase their vulnerability to COVID-19. The EPA is putting an at-risk population in the crosshairs of coronavirus.
If the EPA is trying to protect the public – rather than polluters – during the coronavirus pandemic, then it has failed.