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By Jake Johnson
The Environmental Protection Agency, headed by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, announced on Thursday a sweeping and indefinite suspension of environmental rules amid the worsening coronavirus pandemic, a move green groups warned gives the fossil fuel industry a “green light to pollute with impunity.”
Under the new policy (pdf), which the EPA insisted is temporary while providing no timeframe, big polluters will effectively be trusted to regulate themselves and will not be punished for failing to comply with reporting rules and other requirements. The order—applied retroactively beginning March 13, 2020—requests that companies “act responsibly” to avoid violations.
“Outrageous. Suspending all environmental regulations indefinitely? This has nothing to do with coronavirus. This has everything to do with protecting Big Business.”
—Rep. Mark Pocan
“EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes 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,” Wheeler said in a statement. “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.”
Critics, such as youth climate leader Greta Thunberg, accused the Trump administration of exploiting the coronavirus crisis to advance its longstanding goal of drastically rolling back environmental protections.
“The EPA uses this global pandemic to create loopholes for destroying the environment,” tweeted Thunberg. “This is a schoolbook example for what we need to start looking out for.”
Cynthia Giles, former head of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement under the Obama administration, told The Hill that the new policy is “essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules for the indefinite future.”
“It tells companies across the country that they will not face enforcement even if they emit unlawful air and water pollution in violation of environmental laws, so long as they claim that those failures are in some way ’caused’ by the virus pandemic,” said Giles. “And it allows them an out on monitoring too, so we may never know how bad the violating pollution was.”
The EPA’s order, for which the oil industry aggressively lobbied, represents the latest effort by the Trump administration to use the coronavirus pandemic to advance right-wing policies that would likely not be permitted—or would at least face greater scrutiny—under normal circumstances.
As Common Dreams reported last week, the White House is advancing an assault on public-sector unions, xenophobic border policies, and other objectives amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has officially infected more than 85,000 people in the United States as of Friday morning.
“Outrageous,” tweeted Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, in response to the EPA’s new policy. “Suspending all environmental regulations indefinitely? This has nothing to do with coronavirus. This has everything to do with protecting Big Business.”