EPA chief faces panel amid criticism of regulatory rollbacks

Democrats worry the agency is easing air, water pollution rules in a 'pandemic of pollution'

Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is expected to face questions Wednesday from members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is expected to face questions Wednesday from members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 20, 2020 at 6:30am

Members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will question EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Wednesday as his agency faces legal challenges and mounting criticism for easing enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The EPA is among federal agencies that have issued a flurry of regulations and rules during the pandemic, a pattern legal experts have said may be intended to avoid the reach of a law that allows Congress to strike down regulations shortly after they are finalized.

Last week, nine state attorneys general sued the EPA for issuing what they called a “broad, open-ended policy,” referring to the agency’s March 26 decision to allow companies to determine for themselves if they can meet reporting requirements for air and water pollution during the crisis.

Wheeler told Congress on April 2 that the agency will “not seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting requirements” for violations of standard compliance and monitoring rules for federal air and water protections during the pandemic.

Since the pandemic swept across the U.S. in mid-March, the EPA has moved to weaken fuel-efficiency standards and mercury emission rules, and decided not to make soot pollution standards more stringent.

EPA spokesman Ken Labbe previously said the temporary policy is “not a nationwide waiver of environmental rules,” despite concerns from Democratic senators, environmental groups, consumer advocacy groups and health organizations, including Moms Clean Air Force.

“Since the pandemic hit our shores, he has proposed an onslaught of rollbacks and freezes designed to satisfy polluting industries at the expense of our children’s health,” Dominique Browning, co-founder of Moms Clean Air Force, an advocacy group, said of the administrator.

“Wheeler is undermining health protections from toxic mercury, tailpipe pollution, deadly soot, and more, even as he loosens environmental enforcement,” Browning said. “He is easing up on health-harming pollution even as a respiratory pandemic preys on those with underlying health conditions.”

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Disinfectants

In remarks prepared for Wednesday’s hearing, Wheeler notes the agency approved disinfectants shown to be effective against harder-to-kill viruses or against other coronaviruses similar to COVID-19.

The agency increased the number of EPA-approved disinfectants to combat the coronavirus from 60 on March 5 to more than 400 as of May 1, according to his statement.

“We have also reduced regulatory burden in the face of supply chain disruption by releasing a list of over 360 commodity inert ingredients for which if manufacturers need to change their supplier source, they now may proceed without seeking EPA approval,” he said. “EPA has implemented additional flexibilities to assist disinfectant manufacturers with other supply chain interruptions.”

On April 1, ranking member Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., and 10 other Democratic senators raised concerns about agency activities during and in response to the pandemic, including its lack of a public continuity of operations plan and 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,” they said. “At the same time, EPA is rushing to finalize many of its more controversial rules to weaken pollution standards for automobiles and power plants.”

A spokesperson for Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said Merkley was “particularly curious why Wheeler is using the cover of a global pandemic to put in place rules changes that will worsen air quality and could actually make Americans more susceptible to respiratory illness.”

Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, Carper released a staff report further criticizing EPA rollbacks by highlighting the link between air pollution and adverse outcomes from COVID-19. The report connects air pollution to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and pre-existing conditions that correlate with worse COVID-19 outcomes, and that these contributing factors are disproportionately prevalent in low income and minority communities, which have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While the rest of the country works around the clock to combat and overcome this deadly respiratory pandemic, the Trump EPA has been spearheading a pandemic of pollution,” he said. “Under normal circumstances, these rollbacks would be cause for grave concern. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they are profoundly irresponsible and cause for alarm.”

Wheeler called the report “nothing more than a pandemic of political propaganda.”

“The truth is EPA has been a part of President Trump’s comprehensive ‘whole of the government’ response to effectively address the coronavirus pandemic while continuing to protect human health and the environment,” he said in a statement. “Every EPA office has been working wholeheartedly in the President’s fight against COVID-19.”