Advocacy groups push back on 'business as usual' at EPA during coronavirus

Advocacy groups push back on 'business as usual' at EPA during coronavirus
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Environmental groups, states and cities are urging the Trump administration to give the public more time to weigh in on key agency rules as almost all sectors of society are focused on the coronavirus pandemic.

While many of the policies the groups are concerned about are related to the environment, their calls underscore broader frustrations that rulemaking is proceeding at a time when the outbreak is consuming the country.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said it will go on with “business as usual” for its regulations, and the Interior Department has said it will evaluate its actions on a “case-by-case basis.”

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One of the proposals that’s making its way through the rulemaking process is the EPA's Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science rule, sometimes called the “secret science” rule, which limits consideration of studies that don't make their underlying data public.

Attorneys general from 13 states and several cities recently wrote a letter to the EPA asking for at least a 120-day comment period on the proposal, as opposed to the current 30-day period for input.

“Given the significant new elements of the supplemental proposal in the context of a proposed rule of such consequence, as well as the significant disruption facing our nation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EPA must extend the comment period to at least 120-days to permit adequate time for the public to consider the supplemental proposal and provide feedback on it” they wrote to the agency.

“States, healthcare professionals, and scientists who should weigh in on the supplemental proposal will not be able to devote the time necessary to fully evaluate the supplemental proposal and its implications during this evolving crisis,” they added.

A draft of the latest version of the rule was published last week, though changes to it were announced earlier this month.

Seventeen medical and health organizations have also written to the EPA asking for a longer comment period.

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But the EPA has indicated no such exceptions will be made.

“We’re open and continuing our regulatory work business as usual,” an EPA spokesperson told The Hill in a statement. “As regulations.gov is fully functioning, there is no barrier to the public providing comment during the established periods.”

The Interior Department is facing similar calls to make changes.

A coalition of green groups wrote to the agency asking it to suspend all of its public comment periods during the outbreak.

“Commenting on Interior Department proposals for major policy changes, changes to regulations,and oil and gas leases requires concerted focused attention and resources that many people who normally engage in these processes simply do not have right now,” said the coalition of more than 90 organizations. “Additionally, several field trips and in-person meetings are scheduled that are in conflict with the president’s request to limit public gatherings.”

A Department of the Interior (DOI) spokesperson said in a statement that interest groups are “playing politics at a time when all Americans need to come together.”

“All DOI actions, including comment periods and lease sales, are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis and adjustments are being made to ensure we are allowing for proper public input, while protecting the health and safety of the public and our employees,” the spokesperson said.

The coalition cited public comment periods for a proposal that would change the scope of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a supplemental environmental impact statement on changes to protections for the sage grouse and for oil and gas lease permits.

“At a time when people are focused on their families and themselves ... the Department of Interior, they should put a halt to this in recognition that the public is otherwise preoccupied,” said Randi Spivak, the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands program director.

“These aren’t proposals to protect peoples’ air quality or clean water ... These are major policy proposals that are moving forward when not only those individuals ... are more concerned with the health industry, but it also means that experts in the field, scientists, advocacy organizations are rightfully focused on the coronavirus health crisis,” said Western Values Project Deputy Director Jayson O’Neill.

Environmentalists argue that the administration should also temporarily suspend its oil and gas lease sales on public lands, an argument that has resonated on the other end of the political spectrum.

Some conservatives and taxpayer groups said sales at this time could harm taxpayers given the recent decline in oil prices.

“With sharply reduced demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and efforts by Saudi Arabia and Russia to flood the market, a massive oil glut threatens the entire industry,” said an analysis from Taxpayers for Common Sense and Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship.

The calls to hit pause on comment periods extend beyond environmental issues.

A coalition representing state and local governments recently wrote to the White House requesting an extension for all public comment periods.

“The extreme impact on normal working and living conditions will impair the ability of not only state and local officials, but also the general public, issue experts and others to provide thoughtful and meaningful participation and involvement in potential federal government actions that directly affect millions of people,” wrote groups that included the National Governors Association, the Council of State Governments and the National League of Cities.

“State and local governments urge you to extend agency comment periods for a reasonable period of time, which will allow our state and local policymakers to focus on addressing the nation’s immediate pandemic response needs and ensure their ability to devote proper consideration of agency regulations,” they added.

For David Adkins, executive director and CEO of the Council of State Governments, the request should not be viewed through a partisan lens.

“If the federal government wants to do this the right way, they won’t ask already overburdened state and local officials to engage in a process that they simply don’t have the bandwidth to engage in right now,” he told The Hill.