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Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

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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The bottom line: "After this policy is no longer in effect, the EPA expects full compliance going forward," the agency said.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."

Go deeper: U.S. leads world in confirmed coronavirus cases for first time

Go deeper

Updated 1 hour ago - Health

First North American Omicron cases identified in Canada

COVID-19 testing personnel at Toronto Pearson International Airport in September. Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The first two cases of the new Omicron variant have been detected in North America, the Canadian government announced Sunday evening.

Driving the news: The World Health Organization has named Omicron a "variant of concern," but cautioned earlier on Sunday that it is not yet clear whether it's more transmissible than other strains of COVID-19.

Former Defense Secretary Esper sues Pentagon over book

Former President Trump and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the White House in 2020. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper filed a lawsuit Sunday against the Defense Department, accusing the Pentagon of "censoring" his First Amendment rights by redacting parts of his upcoming book on the Trump administration.

The big picture: Esper, who served as defense secretary from July 2019 until he was fired by then-President Trump in November last year, alleges in the suit that "significant text" is "being improperly withheld from publication" of the manuscript "under the guise of classification."

WHO warns against travel bans on southern African countries

Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization regional director for Africa. Photo: Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

The World Health Organization called on countries Sunday to not impose travel bans on southern African nations amid concerns over the new COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The U.S. and countries in Europe and the Asia-Pacific announced travel restrictions in response to Omicron, which was first detected in South Africa. It's since spread to several European countries, Canada, Israel, Australia and Hong Kong. The WHO noted in a statement that only two southern African nations have detected the new variant.

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