INSIGHT: Pandemic Is No Reason to Relax Environmental Oversight

June 24, 2020, 8:00 AM

As the country struggles with the worst health crisis in modern times, the Trump administration is allowing some polluters to poison our water and air without public oversight, as long as they use the coronavirus pandemic as a reason.

It’s not okay. We’re taking the administration to court to prove it—and to protect the public from the toxic pollutants that make it harder for people to survive the coronavirus.

A new analysisby the NRDC finds that many places around the country with a high density of facilities that pollute the air and harm human health also have high death rates from Covid-19. The people who are paying the highest price live in parts of Michigan—as well as Louisiana, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, and New York.

NRDC’s findings build on a recent Harvard study showing breathing dirty air can cause or aggravate the kinds of lung and heart troubles that make people more likely to die from the coronavirus.

The Right to Know

These scientific findings underscore how important it is for people to get real-time information about industrial pollution that threatens their health and lives. People have a right to know about pollution in their midst, and they need it now more than ever.

There is a long history of workers and communities organizing successfully to obtain the Right-to-Know policies.

That’s why laws in place for decades require the operators of refineries, oil and gas wells, chemical factories, incinerators, power plants and other big polluters to monitor their operations and certify that they’re obeying necessary safeguards. Chemical disasters in recent years have highlighted the need for robust right-to-know laws regarding chemical facility safety and storage.

This means testing tanks and pipes for toxic leaks, for instance. It can also mean sampling emissions from industrial smokestacks or analyzing the waters and air near so-called concentrated animal feeding operations to protect neighboring communities from harmful chemicals, pesticides and waste.

The information must, by law, be made public.

This is critical information for people living in neighboring communities. It helps workers understand on-the-job risks. And it enables first responders and policymakers to know when additional equipment, training or protections are needed to protect people’s safety and health.

In March, the American Petroleum Institute, the trade association for the oil and gas industry, wrote a letter to Andrew Wheeler, the former fossil fuels lobbyist who now heads the EPA, asking the agency to waive a broad category of these environmental monitoring and compliance regulations, citing the Covid-19 pandemic as justification.

Three days later, Wheeler did precisely that.

In a March 26 memo, the agency laid out a new policy of “enforcement discretion.” It allows companies to suspend monitoring and reporting if they claim the pandemic as a reason. And it does all of this without so much as requiring industry to tell the public it’s no longer monitoring and reporting its pollution.

EPA’s New Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell Policy Opens the Door to Abuse

It leaves communities downstream of chemical factories, for example, in the dark as to what kind of toxic pollution might be in the rivers and streams that provide their drinking water.

It leaves communities downwind of incinerators, power plants and refineries wondering whether the air they breathe contains dangerous levels of mercury, lead, soot and other contaminants that aggravate heart and lung diseases.

And it leaves fence-line neighborhoods—disproportionately native indigenous, people of color and low-income communities—who live near smelters, oil and gas wells, pipelines and factory farms defenseless against harmful pollution that bleeds over the property line.

We have an absolute right to know when industry is polluting the air we breathe and the water we drink. Suppressing that information violates that right.

If a company is going to stop monitoring and reporting its toxic pollution, it should be required to explain to the EPA, in writing, that it is doing so, and why. That information, in turn, must be made available to the public, so communities can take actions to protect themselves from the pollution that results.

That’s what we asked the EPA to do in a petition in April. It’s the very minimum the agency would have done already if this were a good faith response to the pandemic. When EPA did not respond to our petition, we and more than a dozen other public interest groups took them to court to force them to respond. In May, nine states also sued, contending EPA exceeded its authority with its lax enforcement directive.

Briefing on an injunction has just begun in the states’ case. Briefing is complete in our case, and we are awaiting a ruling from the court.

Unfortunately, this is just one of the many polluter handouts this administration has pushed forward while the country struggles with the pandemic.

Last month, the administration failed to strengthen protections against soot, the smokestack pollution the recent Harvard report revealed aggravates the kinds of lung and heart diseases that weaken a person’s ability to survive Covid-19.

Also in April, the administration changed protections against mercury and other toxic chemicals that coal-fired power plants dump into our air, making future rollbacks—and, thus, dirtier and more dangerous air—more likely.

The administration also weakened efficiency and clean air standards for cars, meaning more of the tailpipe pollution that is threatening our health and well-being and driving the climate crisis.

Finally, Trump recently issued an executive order to push through polluting infrastructure projects. Those hit hardest by such projects are many of the same already suffering from the twin crises of racist violence and the pandemic.

The Trump administration was waging an all-out attack on our rights to clean air and health long before the coronavirus struck. There’s something additionally shameful, though, about pressing these attacks at a time when Covid-19 is taking such a profound and wrenching toll on the nation.

Now, more than ever, it’s time for this administration to stop doing polluters’ dirty work—and start protecting the American people.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Michele Roberts is national co-coordinator for the Environmental Justice Health Alliance. Mitchell Bernard is executive director and chief counsel at NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council).

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