EPA relaxes enforcement of environmental regulations

Andrew Hansen, Reporter

On March 26, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that the department would be retroactively relaxing enforcement of environmental regulations and fines during the COVID-19 pandemic, starting March 13, 2020.

According to a news release by the EPA, organizations that wish to skip the regulations must first “document decisions made to prevent or mitigate noncompliance and demonstrate how the noncompliance was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Jim Feldman

This means that the EPA will not take action against facilities that prove COVID-19 gave them no choice but to violate water and air pollution regulations during the pandemic.

However, the guidelines about what constitutes “non-compliance” are vague at best.

“On the one hand, it is reasonable to say that during a time of crisis like this one, we will be focusing our time and attention on the most vital issues,” said Jim Feldman, director of the Environmental Studies program at UW Oshkosh. “But companies could literally do anything they want without fear of enforcement.”

Feldman says the EPA has relaxed regulations before, but not to this extent.

“This particular order, however, is vastly unreasonable in the way that it is conceived, and in the context of the Trump Administration’s assault on environmental regulations in general, it is particularly egregious,” he said.

The order follows the March 20 letters sent by American Petroleum Institute Executive Mike Sommers to both President Trump and the EPA requesting change be made to regulations in order to maintain safe and reliable operations and consider the lack of employee resources to manage those requirements.

“As such, we will be requesting assistance in temporarily waiving non-essential compliance obligations from the relevant agencies and departments within your Administration and/or their state counterparts, and may include recordkeeping, training or other non-safety critical requirements,” he said.

EPA spokesperson Andrea Woods told the New York Times that “it is not a nationwide waiver of environmental rules.”

“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 added.

However, Feldman doesn’t seem so confident. He says that when economic activity increases again, so will air pollution.

“If the economy rebounds, but is slightly less robust than before, one might expect that air pollution will be slightly less — there is a general correlation here between economic activity and pollution,” he said. “So when economic activity returns, environmental protections absolutely should be in place, and the Trump Administration’s order to halt enforcement should be rescinded.”