What happened: In March, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) temporarily suspended its enforcement activities, allowing industrial facilities to decide whether they would comply with environmental laws. An investigation by the Associated Press (AP) found that the EPA’s order led industrial facilities to stop monitoring and reporting pollution in thousands of cases.
Why it matters: The EPA is responsible for enforcing the science-based environmental laws that keep the public safe from threats like industrial pollution. By abdicating this responsibility, the EPA allowed industrial facilities to emit toxic chemicals, forgo needed inspections and tests, and endanger public health without penalty—all during the COVID-19 health crisis.
According to an analysis by The Associated Press (AP), the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision in March to stop enforcing environmental protections led industrial facilities to forgo monitoring and reporting requirements in thousands of cases, emitting potentially large quantities of toxic chemicals without penalty until the policy ended in August.
If left unchecked, industrial activity can pump dangerous chemicals into the air, water, and soil, threatening public health and natural resources. Air pollution kills more than 100,000 people in the US each year and can cause debilitating illness. To curb these risks, the EPA oversees a suite of vital anti-pollution laws that require federal and industrial facilities to monitor and report their emissions. For decades, these laws—including the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act—have formed the backbone of the nation’s public safety apparatus.
However, in spring 2020, the EPA undermined this apparatus. On March 26, around the time COVID-19 deaths had reached 1,000 in the US, the EPA announced a new enforcement policy: Industrial facilities, like coal plants, oil refineries, and factory farms, would be excused from a broad swath of regulatory requirements—requirements, like the monitoring and reporting toxic emissions, that are foundational to environmental and public health law. The EPA argued the decision was necessary because “potential worker shortages” and “social distancing restrictions” caused by the pandemic would “affect [facilities’] reporting obligations.” The EPA, it continued, would not “seek penalties for noncompliance”—that is, it would not fine facilities for failing to monitor and report emissions.
The announcement, which came only six days after the nation’s largest oil and gas lobby group asked the White House to suspend enforcement, sparked outrage among environmental and public health groups. Many groups—including a coalition of attorneys general—sued, arguing that the “arbitrary and capricious” policy “presents a huge threat” to communities. On August 31, the EPA ended the policy.
However, a two-month investigation by the Associated Press (AP) found that facilities across the country were exempted from enforcement in more than 3,000 cases, including hundreds of oil and gas companies. In Indiana, a petroleum company asked state officials to exempt it from groundwater sampling, leak detection, and hazardous waste management; in Nevada, regulators stopped inspections at a former nuclear test site, approving drive-by checks instead. Around the country, dozens of facilities skipped inspections and delayed upgrades, including those that would reduce contamination from PFAS, a class of chemicals that can cause cancer and reproductive and immunological problems. In March and April, facilities conducted 40 percent fewer emissions tests from smokestacks.
These types of emissions pose an extraordinary threat to human health. For example, fine particulate matter, released by a variety of facilities, can be small enough to burrow deep in human lungs and even enter the bloodstream. These particles can cause cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and even brain damage, and they cause an estimated tens of thousands of deaths in the US every year. Heavy metals are dangerous, too: lead accumulates in human tissues and can cause profound neurological damage in children. Long-term exposure to dioxins can impair the immune system and cause infertility. Ozone can aggravate lung diseases and probably causes premature deaths.
Worse, recent research suggests that prior exposure to these types of pollutants can exacerbate the symptoms of COVID-19. The novel coronavirus attacks the respiratory system; if someone’s lungs have been weakened by chronic exposure to air pollutants, then COVID-19 can be especially serious. A Harvard study released in April found that people with COVID-19 who live in areas with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from the disease than those living in less polluted areas. Other studies have reached similar conclusions.
Moreover, exposure to air pollutants is unevenly distributed across society, and studies confirm that communities of color are disproportionately burdened by air pollution. Black children, Latino children, and children from low-income families have a higher likelihood of developing asthma compared to their white peers. Research dating back to the 1970s shows that many more low-income households, Indigenous communities, and people of color live near toxic waste sites, landfills, and congested highways than do white and affluent communities. Coupled with this inequitable exposure, COVID-19 has proven catastrophic for communities of color, with Black people dying from the virus at 2.5 times the rate of white people.
The EPA is responsible for protecting the public from toxic chemicals using the best available science. By excusing industry from monitoring and reporting dangerous emissions, the EPA has waived this responsibility and given industrial facilities free reign to pollute during the COVID-19 pandemic. The public, and especially underserved communities, will pay the price.