Hidden Effect of the Coronavirus
While the nation is coping with coronavirus impacts and precautions, countless Americans are dealing with new realities such as unemployment, food scarcity, and isolation through social distancing. For most of us, this means prioritizing the things in our lives that mean the most such as family and caring for those who are most at risk. Unfortunately, there are those in Washington D.C. who are taking advantage in this time of caution and restriction to push ahead corporate agendas that could have precedent-setting effects on the health of our environment and on Americans.
On Thursday, March 26th, The Environmental Protection Agency released a memorandum announced a sweeping relaxation of environmental rules in response to the coronavirus pandemic, allowing power plants, factories, and other facilities to determine for themselves if they are able to meet legal requirements on reporting air and water pollution as reported by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other news outlets. This move comes amid an influx of requests from businesses for a relaxation of regulations as they face layoffs, personnel restrictions, and other problems related to the coronavirus outbreak. The rule, which will remain in place indefinitely, means factories, power plants, and other major industrial polluters have tremendous discretion in deciding whether or not they think the coronavirus will prevent them from meeting certain legal requirements.
Issued by the E.P.A.’s top compliance official, Susan P. Bodine, the policy sets new guidelines for companies to monitor themselves for an undetermined period of time during the outbreak and says that the agency will not issue fines for violations of certain air, water, and hazardous-waste-reporting requirements. “The consequences of the pandemic may affect facility operations and the availability of key staff and contractors and the ability of laboratories to timely analyze samples and provide results,” says the EPA memorandum. The EPA’s decision was comprehensive, forgoing fines or other civil penalties for companies that failed to monitor, report, or meet some other requirements for releasing hazardous pollutants.
The move was the latest, and one of the broadest, regulation-easing moves by the EPA, which is seeking to roll back dozens of regulations as part of President Trump’s purge of rules that the administration views as unfriendly to business. The oil industry’s lobby American Petroleum Institute requested regulatory relief from President Trump, citing concerns for workers and limited numbers of staff due to the outbreak. Many experts and environmental advocates say that while case-by-case relaxation of rules for companies that are short-staffed due to the pandemic makes sense, the expansiveness of the EPA’s directive appears both unprecedented and designed to give a green light to polluters to act recklessly at a time when air quality is acutely important for public health, according to the news site Vox.
Gina McCarthy, who led the E.P.A. under the Obama administration and now serves as president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it “an open license to pollute.” She said that while individual companies might need flexibility, “this brazen directive is nothing short of an abject abdication of the E.P.A. mission to protect our well-being,’’ as reported by the New York Times. “No one has ever seen anything like this. This is a complete pass for every industry. It basically says that if somehow it’s related to COVID-19, then you don’t have to worry — and this is retroactive to earlier in the month (March 13th) — about monitoring or keeping records.” Monitoring or record-keeping may sound like “just paperwork,” McCarthy went on to say, but it’s the most fundamental way for the public to know what pollutants are getting emitted into air and dumped into our water.
The LA Times reported McCarthy as saying “It’s ludicrous; this is standard work that takes very few people to do — especially when you’re trying to keep the factories running.” It amounts to a free pass for all the entities that the EPA normally regulates under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. That’s a huge swath of industry, including facilities like refineries, smelters, and chemical plants—the same types of sites that can trigger asthma attacks—even as these plants continue to operate during the pandemic. EPA is essentially ceding its federal authority to state offices and deferring to the polluters, even on issues that could pose an “imminent threat” to public health or the environment, according to the news magazine Mother Jones. Cynthia Giles, the EPA’s former head of enforcement during the Obama administration described the EPA’s suspension as “an abdication of EPA’s responsibility to protect the public. Incredibly, the EPA statement does not even reserve EPA’s right to act in the event of an imminent threat to public health.”
David Uhlmann, director of the environmental law and policy program at the University of Michigan and former chief of the environmental crimes section at the Justice Department said that while it was no surprise people would be suspicious about the decision, considering the Trump administration’s “deplorable record” on environmental protection, “this policy may be less nefarious than the alarming environmental rollbacks that the Trump EPA continues to pursue, even as the nation is fighting the COVID pandemic,” reports the LA Times. In the 24 hours after the EPA freeze, the Trump administration rolled out a host of other policies that suggested it’s exploiting the pandemic to more broadly deregulate the private sector and advance controversial policies surrounding both public health and the environment that might otherwise garner more scrutiny.
In the past, the Globe-Miami area has been plagued with poor soil, air, and water quality due to the mining industry which brought these towns to life. Through a combination of science, technology, and government regulations, those once life threatening pollutants have been greatly reduced. With an informed citizenry and the continued positive relationship these communities share with our local mines, hopefully we can avoid unnecessary increases in pollution and emissions under the pretenses of assisting industry while getting the local economy back on its feet.
Paul Buck is a soils specialist with the San Carlos ApacheTribe and manages the farm operations. In his spare time he plays in the Centennial Band and Jazz Band, and acts with the Copper Community Players.