Nearly two dozen environmental and advocacy groups are urging the EPA to issue an emergency rule within seven days that would require public notice of any relaxed air and water quality monitoring and reporting due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The Environmental Protection Agency’s non‐enforcement policy announced on March 26 creates an immediate and serious risk to people and communities affected by pollution,” the groups said in their petition Wednesday. “That risk is heightened by EPA’s broad invitation to regulated industries to suspend monitoring and reporting without public disclosure and without adequate justification or oversight.”
But the EPA said its enforcement guidance was designed to respond to the many questions it was receiving from state regulators and the regulated community about how to handle “the current extraordinary situation” due to the pandemic, in which contractors can’t travel and employees are forced to stay at home.
“The claims made by the petitioners are false and it is apparent they didn’t even read our guidance,” the EPA said on Wednesday in response to the petition, which it said it would review. It added that the agency’s guidance “is not a nationwide waiver of environmental rules.”
“We will continue to work with federal, state and tribal partners to ensure that facilities are meeting regulatory requirements, while taking appropriate steps to protect the health of our staff and the public,” EPA said.
‘Clear Opportunity for Abuse’
Led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the groups asked EPA to issue a rule requiring companies that take advantage of the policy to publicly disclose—in writing—when they stop monitoring or reporting their air and water pollution emissions, along with a detailed justification for doing so.
The petition also urges the EPA to notify the public by publishing that information within one day of notice from the companies.
“We fully appreciate the disruption and harm caused by the COVID‐19 pandemic,” the groups wrote in their petition. “But EPA’s unprecedented non‐enforcement policy creates a clear opportunity for abuse.”
Th EPA’s guidance recognizes that some entities can’t perform certain monitoring, testing, sampling, and reporting duties, and lets the EPA “prioritize its resources to respond to acute risks and imminent threats, rather than making up front case-by-case determinations regarding routine monitoring and reporting,” the agency said. It said companies must document how their inability to do things is caused by the pandemic.
“The policy does not say that the COVID-19 pandemic will excuse exceedances of pollutant limitations in permits, regulations, and statutes,” the EPA said on Wednesday.
The NRDC-led petition, also signed by the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen and a series of national and regional environmental groups, comes a day after eight House Democrats told EPA its policy is both “unprecedented and dangerous.”
Senators Question EPA
Separately, a group of 11 Democratic senators asked EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Wednesday for more information about whether EPA’s “essential functions and response role remain intact” during the pandemic.
They asked the EPA to publish on its website any enforcement waivers it issues and extend all rulemaking comment periods.
They also want to know whether the EPA’s continuity of operations plan is sufficient to address the coronavirus response. The lawmakers noted that the plan, which lays out procedures for staff to keep functioning during emergencies, isn’t publicly available.
An EPA spokeswoman said Wheeler 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.”
The agency has also taken “significant steps to ensure protection of our own employees as we work to fulfill this important mission,” the spokeswoman said.
The letter was written by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee. Other signatories included Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee; Tom Udall (D-N.M.); Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.); and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).