A Democratic senator demanded that EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler apologize for regulatory actions and rollbacks in recent weeks that the lawmaker said make the coronavirus pandemic worse, especially for low-income and communities of color.
Wheeler was appearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Wednesday, where he touted the administration’s deregulatory actions and defended a decision to ease clean water and clean air enforcement during the public health crisis.
The EPA’s decision in April to not penalize companies that fail to meet clean air and water pollution standards prompted backlash from public health advocates, Democrats and a lawsuit from nine state attorneys general who describe it as a “broad, open-ended policy.”
A newly bearded Wheeler appeared in person at the committee’s Capitol Hill hearing room. Still, most committee members joined through often-choppy remote connections to reduce crowding and minimize the risk of coronavirus spread.
He touted what he described as an “impressive” list of more than 60 deregulatory actions the agency has taken under President Donald Trump, including since March, such as writing less-stringent vehicle emissions standards, finalizing the rollback of the Waters of the United States rule and not updating national air quality standards.
In a tense exchange, Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., asked Wheeler to apologize for several actions the agency has taken since the pandemic started to sweep across the nation.
“We are in the middle of a health crisis attacking people's lungs and the agency is supposed to be the air quality fire department, but instead you're throwing gasoline on a burning building, knowing that breathing bad air can make the impacts of the coronavirus worse,” Markey said.
Wheeler responded that those regulations don’t increase emissions and public health problems, an assertion counter to other analyses by public health and environmental groups.
“The premise there is off,” Wheeler told Markey, who joined the meeting through a video.
“This is unconscionable; history will remember you and the environmental injustice you have perpetrated in the name of the EPA,” Markey said. “You are turning the EPA into every polluter’s ally.”
Democrats also pressed Wheeler on the relaxed pollution enforcement, which they said didn’t make sense at a time when the country was dealing with an airborne public health crisis that has so far killed more than 90,000 people.
“I am appalled that EPA would offer a blanket, non-enforcement policy without seeking specific information on why these facilities are unable to comply with their permits,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said.
Wheeler responded that the “premise” of Duckworth’s questioning was “incorrect” and that EPA staff has continued to enforce agency rules, including opening 52 criminal enforcement cases, charging 10 defendants for violations and concluding 122 civil enforcement actions since March 16.
He said the decision doesn’t permit companies to increase their pollution, but simply allows them to cite the pandemic if they’re unable to submit compliance reports because of closure or limited staff during the health crisis.
The EPA, he said, has done a lot to help struggling Americans during the pandemic, including approving more than 400 sanitizers since March.
“In many cases, we have reduced the approval process time from 3-5 months to 2-3 weeks,” Wheeler said.
Republicans came to Wheeler’s defense, lauding him for removing what they described as regulatory burdens.
“In addition to its work on the virus, the agency has pursued policies to protect the environment, while supporting the economy,” Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said.
Ahead of the hearing, the office of the committee’s ranking member Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., released a report highlighting a link between air pollution and COVID-19 infections and death, which are worse in low-income and minority communities.
“The new report I released earlier today found that the rollbacks that EPA has taken just since March 1 of this year could kill tens of thousands of people prematurely each year,” Carper said. “These rollbacks are, in fact, a pandemic of pollution that — rather than attacking — the Environmental Protection Agency is actually contributing to, all in the middle of an actual pandemic.”
In an earlier statement, Wheeler described the report as “nothing more than a pandemic of political propaganda.”
At the hearing, Barrasso further defended the administration, saying Carper’s report was based on a non-peer reviewed study by Harvard University. The study, linking long-term pollution exposure to higher COVID-19 death rates, has been widely criticized by conservatives and Trump administration allies.
Still, Carper asked Wheeler if he would commit to using excess EPA funds to study the link between air pollution and COVID-19, and whether the agency would factor those findings into future rulemaking.
“Will you stop writing rules that make things worse, not better?” Carper asked.
Wheeler said the agency is “looking into” that kind of research, but was noncommittal.
"All of our rules make things better, sir," he responded to Carper.