On March 26, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a temporary policy of relaxing enforcement of key environmental laws during the COVID-19 outbreak. The COVID-19 outbreak has had and will continue to have a profound impact on daily life and operations across all sectors of society. It is now more important than ever that U.S. laws passed to protect a healthy and livable human environment are preserved and enforced—not weakened.
- EPA’s nonenforcement policy makes no exception for violations of the Clean Air Act, even in areas with ambient air pollution levels that exceed health-based thresholds. These areas, which are often low-income and home to marginalized communities, already have elevated rates and severity of respiratory disease. Exposure to air pollution is an important risk factor for viral infections. Health experts warn that those with existing respiratory diseases are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Minimizing exposure to air pollution is an important step to reduce the likelihood of severe disease, particularly in communities already facing disproportionate environmental burdens and health risks. Yet, rather than strengthening control over air pollution in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, EPA has announced a policy of relaxing its control. This policy threatens individual, community, and population health and is an affront to environmental justice.
- The operation and enforcement of many environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, depends largely on mandatory self-monitoring and reporting by polluters. This information allows states and the EPA to identify facilities in noncompliance and respond as necessary. Moreover, monitoring and reporting requirements are often the only way that communities can get any information at all about air pollution around them. In its new policy, EPA states that it may not enforce these requirements during the COVID-19 outbreak. EPA’s policy interferes with the public’s right to know what is in the air, in the water, and in the ground around them. The effect is that individuals and communities will be less able to identify risks, take actions to protect their health, and hold polluters accountable where EPA has not.
- EPA has always had some discretion in deciding when and how to enforce the laws it is charged with administering. By issuing a nationwide formal policy document, rather than continuing to exercise this discretion on a case-by-case basis, EPA has sent a signal to polluters that they can relax. Moreover, EPA has sent a signal to states that they too can relax their enforcement of laws they co-administer with EPA, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
- If a polluter has the resources to remain operational through the COVID-19 outbreak, it has the resources to continue to comply with all applicable environmental laws. With EPA’s explicit permission, polluters may prioritize profits over their obligations to inform the public and protect human health. This is precisely what Congress sought to avoid in passing the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. As society unites in taking necessary steps to contain the COVID-19 outbreak and provide support and medical care for those infected, it is vitally important that EPA fulfill its charge of protecting human health and the environment by holding polluters accountable.