US companies allowed to violate pollution laws during the coronavirus pandemic

The Environmental Protection Agency in the US has announced a temporary suspension of the enforcement of environmental pollution laws.

US companies now have permission to pollute air, land and water without having to worry about sanctions. The Trump administration has suspended the enforcement of environmental legislation during the Covid-19 pandemic. The controversial decision was announced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) according to whom industries may encounter difficulties in abiding by certain prescriptions due to the coronavirus emergecy. However, no time limit has been placed on this “extraordinary measure”.

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The EPA’s decision came after the American Petroleum Institute asked the agency to suspend regulations requiring leaking infrastructure to be repaired and pollution monitoring © Mario Tama/Getty Images

Licence to violate pollution laws

Thanks to this decision, eagerly advocated for by the fossil fuel industry, polluters may avoid sanctions for breaching environmental standards if they maintain that such violations are in some way linked to the pandemic. Gina McCarthy, head of the EPA during the Obama administration and president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), has called this measure “an open licence to pollute”.

“The Trump administration is taking advantage of an unprecedented public health crisis to do favours for polluters that threaten public health,” McCarthy stated.

What changes

Under normal circumstances, companies are required to monitor and report when they release certain levels of pollutants into the air or water. But, starting from the 13th of March, companies that haven’t monitored, reported or met certain requirements related to the release of dangerous pollutants won’t be fined or sanctioned in any way. Oil refineries, for example, won’t be forced to report the extent of their carcinogenic benzene emissions, and thus won’t have to worry about exceeding the limits. The EPA has given up on its role of environmental inspector, delegating this work to individual states.

The EPA asks for responsibility

The agency has asked companies to “minimise the effects and duration of any non-conformity” and “act in a responsible manner” during this unusual time.

“EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognises challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from Covid-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” its Administrator Andrew Wheeler stated. “This temporary policy is designed to provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions, while ensuring facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment”.

A further danger to health

In spite of assurances, it’s feared the decision could cause an even higher risk to public health, right in the middle of a pandemic. Cynthia Giles, head of EPA enforcement during the Obama administration, has said the body “should never relinquish its right and obligation to act immediately and decisively when there’s threat to public health, no matter what the reason is. I’m not aware of any instance when EPA ever relinquished this fundamental authority as it does in this memo. This memo amounts to a nationwide moratorium on enforcing the nation’s environmental laws and is an abdication of EPA’s responsibility to protect the public”.

Read more: Coronavirus and air pollution, a dangerous liaison

Former EPA functionaries and environmental organisations are especially worried about the possible increase in air pollution emitted by industrial plants, which are primarily located in low-income areas. Air pollution damages our respiratory system and kills at least seven million people each year. This is even more dangerous considering that Covid-19 attacks the very same organs, causing breathing difficulties and pneumonia in its more severe cases. In fact, there may also be a link between air pollution and the spread of the virus.

Read more: How coronavirus is laying social inequalities bare

Plastic ban revoked

As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, many US states have suspended the ban related to the sale and use of single-use plastic bags. Maine Governor Janet Mills announced the state will delay its ban, which was meant to come into force on 22nd April, with the goal of “mitigating the spread of coronavirus in Maine”.

The town of Brookline, Massachusetts has instead suspended the ban on styrofoam containers and the Mayor of Waterville, Maine wants to ban reusable shopping bags. This is because the latter could contribute to the spread of the virus, even though it would be sufficient to wash them to make them as safe as their single-use equivalents.

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Since 2014, eight US states – California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont – have banned single-use plastic bags © Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The environment needs more protection, not less

A lack of respect for the environment and the laws that govern it is a key cause of the pandemic that’s killing thousands of people and bringing the world to a standstill. To react by weakening the (already insufficient) environmental regulations will, most likely, only make things worse.

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