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Coalition petitions EPA for disclosure as agency OKs suspension of environmental monitoring

Coalition petitions EPA for disclosure as agency OKs suspension of environmental monitoring
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A coalition of environmental groups is petitioning the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for more stringent disclosure following a memo from the agency that allows companies to suspend monitoring for pollution during the coronavirus pandemic. 

A directive issued by the agency last week informed companies they will not face fines or other enforcement actions from the EPA if they do not track emissions and discharges during the coronavirus outbreak.

Environmental groups have characterized the memo as a license to pollute, as companies will not have to submit regular reports to the EPA showing they are not violating environmental laws.

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“We fully appreciate the disruption and harm caused by the COVID‐19 pandemic. But EPA’s unprecedented non‐enforcement policy creates a clear opportunity for abuse,” states the petition, which was signed by 21 environmental and watchdog groups and spearheaded by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The EPA’s memo requires companies to keep track of when they were not able to monitor for pollution and explain how the coronavirus outbreak was the cause. The agency has consistently pushed back against the characterization the memo is a nationwide waiver of environmental rules.

“It is important to note that, contrary to the allegations in the petition, EPA’s enforcement authority and responsibility remains active,” the agency said in a response to The Hill.

“The policy does not say that the COVID-19 pandemic will excuse exceedances of pollutant limitations in permits, regulations, and statutes. EPA expects regulated entities to comply with all obligations and if they do not, the policy says that EPA will consider the pandemic, on a case-by-case basis, when determining an appropriate response.”

But the petition from the environmental groups asks the EPA to issue an emergency rule within seven days that requires public disclosure of which companies have suspended environmental monitoring as well as when they return to compliance, all collected in a searchable database.   

Crafting such a rule in seven days would be a lightning fast turnaround in a procedure that can drag out for years, but the petitioners argue the extraordinary measure is necessary.

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“EPA has created an emergency by inviting widespread noncompliance, providing good cause for such action,” they write. 

“EPA’s non‐enforcement policy threatens environmental and health protections by inviting regulated entities to pollute and to hide crucial information from the public. It conveys a broad license to industry to quit monitoring and reporting indefinitely, based only on the honor system.”

That will most immediately affect downwind and downriver communities. Many polluting industries set up shop near communities of color and low-income communities, leading to worse health effects for nearby populations. Those same communities might now be exposed to a surge of pollution with little ability to document or fight it, the petitioners say.

The EPA did not respond to request for comment on the content of the petition.

The agency has said the memo was necessary to avoid tying up staff time answering routine questions when they must focus on the pandemic.

“The policy says that EPA will not seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting requirements, if, on a case-by-case basis, EPA agrees that such noncompliance was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Regulated parties must document the basis for any claim that the pandemic prevented them from conducting that routine monitoring and reporting and present it to EPA upon request,” a spokesperson said in a statement.