EPA sets date to end reduced enforcement; Democrats are unmoved

EPA in March said that it wouldn’t penalize companies that fail to meet water and air pollution limits during the coronavirus pandemic.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on May 20.  (Al Drago/Bloomberg/POOL)
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on May 20. (Al Drago/Bloomberg/POOL)
Posted July 1, 2020 at 3:34pm

House Democrats say the EPA’s agreement to end its controversial decision to relax enforcement of air and water pollution regulations during the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t absolve the agency of other transgressions. The agency said in a memo to lawmakers it will end its modified enforcement policy on Aug. 31.

Still, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., and Appropriations Interior-Environment Chairwoman Betty McCollum, D-Minn., applauded the decision, but vowed to keep probing the agency, which they said has withheld from Congress information on the impact of its enforcement policy.

The EPA in March said that it wouldn’t penalize companies that fail to meet water and air pollution limits during the coronavirus pandemic. The relaxed policy would allow companies to determine if they could follow federal reporting requirements on air and water pollution.

That decision was widely criticized by environmental groups worried that industry would retreat from compliance while the country was in the midst of a deadly respiratory pandemic that disproportionately impacts people with long-term exposure to harmful emissions and those with preexisting pulmonary problems.

[EPA’s Wheeler defends pandemic moves as Markey demands apology]

“EPA’s COVID-19 enforcement policy gave license to companies to violate our environmental laws and needlessly weakened public health protections at a time when they were needed most,” Pallone, DeFazio and McCollum said in a joint statement. 

Public health advocates also worried that the EPA’s waiver was so broad that polluters could use it to get away with violations not tied to difficulties brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The EPA at the time argued that the modified policy was “not a nationwide waiver” of environmental rules and that the agency retains its authority to bring enforcement actions if necessary.

'Never stopped'

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told reporters on Wednesday that the agency had not stopped enforcing its rules despite the relaxed policy.

He said that from March 16 to June 25, the agency has continued enforcement, including opening 87 criminal cases, charging 27 defendants and initiating 275 civil actions.

“As you can see our enforcement program never stopped,” Wheeler said.

In its March notice, the agency said that the consequences of the pandemic “may constrain the ability of regulated entities” to perform routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analyses, training, reporting or certification.

The EPA said it would instead focus its resources mainly on situations that may create “an acute risk” or pose immediate threat to public health or the environment.

At the time, the EPA didn’t say when it would end the policy. Pallone, DeFazio and McCollum said they demanded a firm end date from the agency because they feared the administration could attempt to keep the policy in place indefinitely.

“While we’re glad the Trump EPA finally responded to our repeated demands to end this reckless policy, the Agency either doesn’t know or will not reveal its impacts to either Congress or the American people,” the Democrats said in their June 30 statement. 

The lawmakers said they will continue to conduct oversight until EPA answers for the enforcement decision and all of “its failed” policies.

In its memo, the EPA said it’s committed to working with the lawmakers’ staff to “accommodate” their interests.

In a June 17 report examining its pandemic response, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General said enforcement actions had already declined at the agency. Additional reduction in enforcement activity places the EPA’s regulatory mission at greater risk and threatens the agency’s overall mission to protect human health and the environment, the internal watchdog said.

Democrats have lamented the continued rigor with which the EPA has worked to ease environmental protections even while the nation continues to deal with the coronavirus pandemic that has so far killed nearly 130,000 people in the U.S.

The agency has since March taken several regulatory actions, including  rolling back fuel-efficiency standards for light-duty cars and trucks, deciding against strengthening air pollution standards on soot emissions, and finalizing a rule that could make it easier for oil- and coal-fired power plants to emit toxic pollutants including mercury.

“Make no mistake: we will never tolerate the COVID-19 crisis being used as cover to weaken environmental and human health protections,” Pallone, DeFazio and McCollum said. “If anything, the current national emergency demands stronger protections and heightened public health efforts across government — not weaker ones.”