Mar 27, 2020 - Health

EPA relaxes enforcement on pollution violations, citing coronavirus

In this image, smoke pollution rises from a factory

The Phillips 66 Bayway oil refinery along the New Jersey Turnpike in December 2019. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency will not take action against power plants and other facilities that violate rules on air and water pollution or handling hazardous waste if those breaches are the result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the agency announced Thursday.

What's happening: The EPA is reacting to potential worker shortages and laboratories made inoperable by COVID-19, as more states issue stay-at-home orders and businesses close to promote social distancing — an effort to fight the spread of the virus.

  • But, the agency has "heightened expectations for public water systems," it said on Thursday, prioritizing timely updates on water safety to prevent avoidable illnesses.
  • The EPA's relaxed enforcement does not apply to "violations that are the result of an intentional disregard for the law," the EPA noted.

What they're saying: “At a time when Americans are rightly focused on protecting their health and safety during the COVID-19 crisis, it is unfathomable that the EPA has decided not to enforce public health laws, while continuing to weaken public health standards," Collin O'Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said on Thursday.

  • “It is not a nationwide waiver of environmental rules,” EPA spokesperson Andrea Woods told the New York Times. “For situations outside of routine monitoring and reporting, the agency has reserved its authorities and will take the pandemic into account on a case-by-case basis.”

The bottom line: "After this policy is no longer in effect, the EPA expects full compliance going forward," the agency said. If the policy is in place for less than three months, the agency "does not plan to ask facilities to 'catch-up' with missed monitoring or reporting."

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