Democrats press EPA for pandemic response details

Concerns center on agency’s lack of public continuity of operations plan and recent move easing enforcement of pollution rules

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., talks with reporters before heading to the Senate floor for votes on a two-year budget and debt ceiling deal on Aug. 1, 2019.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., talks with reporters before heading to the Senate floor for votes on a two-year budget and debt ceiling deal on Aug. 1, 2019. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 1, 2020 at 6:23pm

Democratic members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee asked EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler how his agency was responding to the COVID-19 pandemic beyond rolling back enforcement.

In a letter Wednesday from ranking member Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., and 10 other Democrats, senators raised concerns about agency activities during and in response to the pandemic, including its lack of a public continuity of operations plan and a recent move easing enforcement of air and water pollution rules.

“EPA also appears to be moving forward with controversial rulemakings and other activities, often in a manner that does not allow for meaningful public input to be provided,” the Democrats wrote. “At the same time, EPA is rushing to finalize many of its more controversial rules to weaken pollution standards for automobiles and power plants.”

[Advocates see flaws as EPA eases compliance rules in crisis]

A Democratic staffer said the senators understand that field inspections may not be possible as Americans shelter in place because of the pandemic, but they want clarification on how the agency is adjusting to those restrictions.

The partisan letter follows criticism from environmental advocates on a series of recent rollbacks by the EPA to weaken pollution oversight, including the March 26 announcement that the agency would not penalize companies that fail to meet water and air pollution limits during the pandemic. For the time being, the agency will allow companies to petition the EPA to qualify for “enforcement discretion.” 

“The Administrator is actively working to ensure EPA is doing its part to combat the spread of COVID-19, and to further the mission of EPA to protect human health and the environment,” an agency spokesperson said. “Additionally, we have taken significant steps to ensure protection of our own employees as we work to fulfill this important mission. We look forward to substantively engaging on these many efforts with the Senators.”

On Tuesday, the agency also rolled back fuel efficiency standards for passenger vehicles established by the Obama administration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Although Democrats complimented the EPA for its transparency in describing its temporary enforcement discretion and efforts launched on March 26, including temporary policy modifications, they still question the rollbacks.  

“Throughout the Trump Administration, the EPA has used every opportunity and tool available to erode and undermine our most important environmental laws. Just this week alone, as we face an urgent crisis, they’ve moved to roll back auto emissions standards and sought to silence an Inspector General report,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. 

“I would hope that this solemn national moment will cause them to refocus on the immediate needs of our communities, but hope is not enough. We must know how EPA plans to fulfill its vital core mission.”

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