EPA Using Coronavirus To Roll Back Environmental Protections
“They’re taking political advantage of a crisis when they know it’s more difficult to respond.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is exploiting the Coronavirus crisis to issue sweeping environmental rollbacks, including the termination of Obama-era clean car rules and an indefinite suspension of regulatory enforcement, according to experts like Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“They’re taking political advantage of a crisis when they know it’s more difficult to respond,” Rosenberg told the Intercept’s Sharon Lerner on Monday. Gina McCarthy, who led the E.P.A. under the Obama administration and now serves as president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, was one of many former administrators to echo Rosenberg’s view, calling the waiver “an open license to pollute.”
McCarthy said that while companies might need regulatory flexibility on a case-by-case basis, the EPA’s indefinite moratorium is an unprecedented and dangerous step. “This brazen directive is nothing short of an abject abdication of the E.P.A. mission to protect our well being,’’ McCarthy said in a statement.
During the indefinite period, the EPA will no longer enforce regulations for most air, water and hazardous-waste-reporting requirements, making it much more difficult to know if corporations are dumping toxins into the air or water.
“This EPA statement is essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules for the indefinite future,” said McCarthy. “It tells companies across the country that they will not face enforcement even if they emit unlawful air and water pollution in violation of environmental laws, so long as they claim that those failures are in some way ’caused’ by the virus pandemic. And it allows them an out on monitoring too, so we may never know how bad the violating pollution was.”
EPA head Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, argued this week that his administration’s rollback of auto efficiency standards “sets realistic standards, will reduce pollution, and save lives,” directly contradicting the warnings of environmental experts and seventeen automakers, who claim that the slashed standards will hurt American citizens and increase market instability. The European Union, China, India, Japan and other major countries have all announced stricter fuel economy standards.
“The rollback does not follow what we know from health science; it will instead make air quality worse and threaten the health of our children, the elderly, outdoor workers, and people who suffer from respiratory illnesses and heart disease,” said Patricia Koman, PhD, in a letter with the Environmental Protection Network, a group of more than 500 former EPA officials who fight against the Trump administration’s deregulatory environmental agenda. Koman served as a Senior Environmental Scientist in the EPA Office of Transportation and Air Quality and currently is a researcher at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
Experts emphasized the immediate consequences of the rollback, arguing that the increased release of air pollutants known to cause cardiovascular and respiratory problems will exacerbate health issues caused by the Coronavirus pandemic.
“We know coronavirus preys on people with respiratory problems, and this dirty air rule will make more Americans vulnerable,” Miles Keogh, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, an organization of state and local air regulators, told the Guardian, calling the timing of the rule change “appalling”.
Lerner found that the negative impact of air pollution has already intensified the pandemic in areas of high cancer risk from toxified air, such as St. John, Louisiana, where resident Robert Taylor says the virus is spreading. “We have families who have both heads of the households dying, father and daughter dying within hours of each other. It’s devastating,” Taylor, who is 79, told Lerner.
As Lerner previously reported, chronic air pollution in the Louisiana town has given it the single worst cancer risk in the country, a concrete example of the consequences of environmental deregulation. “It’s frightening because we know we’re so compromised as a result of the pollution that we have. I have friends and relatives who have been infected with the virus,” Taylor told Lerner. “People don’t know what to do.”
Lerner notes that the EPA’s anti-science efforts go beyond the suppression of environmental experts, as the agency is limiting the use of epidemiology, or the study of how diseases distribute throughout populations, in crafting policy. This is because of a new rule restricting the use of confidential health information in regulatory decision-making.
“Suppose you wanted to look at hotspots where you have very high numbers of Covid-19 cases so you could take steps to address that specific problem,” Rosenberg told Lerner. “The only way you’d know that is epidemiology.” But under the proposed rule, he said, “you wouldn’t be able to give that information full weight because the data has to be public. But that data can never be public. No one is going to want their test results publicly available.”
Some view the rollbacks as a lifeline to the fossil fuel industry, which is suffering its worst crisis since the 1973 Arab oil embargo as a result of decreased demand and a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. The industry’s largest trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, issued a detailed call for help earlier this month, and energy executives will meet with President Trump on Friday.
“This is a get out of jail free card, and don’t think that the industry won’t play it to their fullest advantage,” Judith Enck, who served as an EPA regional administrator from 2008 to 2017, told Inside Climate News. Moody’s anticipates an imminent wave of bankruptcies among U.S. frackers due to their dependency on a “staggering” amount of bad debt, Inside Climate News reported.
Instead of buoying the fossil fuel industry, which many financial analysts believe is dying amid growing concern about climate change, economist Dean Baker argues investment should go to clean energy, which is now cheaper than coal and steadily growing in efficiency.
Trump wants a “big and bold” $2 trillion infrastructure. Sounds great (is infrastructure week?), how about $2 trillion for wind and solar power!
— Dean Baker (@DeanBaker13) March 31, 2020
The newest rollbacks join a long list of slashed environmental protections under the Trump administration, joining asbestos, coal ash, chlorpyrifos, glyphosate, chemical disaster protections, methane, and carbon emission deregulations, among others.