Energy & Environment

EPA defends suspension of pollution monitoring in letter to Congress

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday sent a letter to every member of Congress defending its controversial decision to hold back from penalizing companies that do not monitor their pollution during the coronavirus pandemic.

The letter follows backlash to a late March memo in which the EPA said it would not seek fines or enforcement actions against companies that do not monitor their emissions and discharges as required under several environmental laws.

Environmentalists have called the policy a license to pollute, but the EPA has been pushing back against that characterization amid an increasing number of questions from lawmakers.

“Let me assure you that, contrary to allegations you may have read, EPA continues to enforce the environmental laws,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler wrote in Thursday’s letter.

The EPA said its new policy is temporary, but the agency has not set a date for when it will be lifted. The agency has argued that employees would be overwhelmed if they had to respond to each request to suspend monitoring as industries shift their operations amid the coronavirus outbreak.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a nationwide phenomenon. Diverting EPA staff time to respond to individual questions about routine monitoring and reporting requirements would hinder EPA’s ability to focus on continued protection of human health and the environment,” Wheeler said.

The EPA’s policy would require companies to document when they are not able to monitor their pollution and may face penalties after the fact if they cannot demonstrate why coronavirus was the cause.

“Under the Temporary Policy, those determinations will be made after the pandemic is over and EPA reserves the right to disagree with any assertion that noncompliance was caused by the pandemic,” Wheeler added. “Specifically, the Temporary Policy clearly states that EPA is not seeking penalties for noncompliance only in circumstances that involve routine monitoring and reporting requirements, if, on a case-by-case basis, EPA agrees that such noncompliance was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

But critics argue the damage will already be done. Without monitoring, companies won’t know the extent of any pollution and communities may have already been exposed.

“If you don’t really have information about the toxicity of your discharges, you just go about your merry way without knowing if you’re discharging something accurately hazardous,” Eric Schaffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, previously told The Hill. 

The EPA is facing calls to publicize which companies are suspending monitoring as soon as those disclosures come in.

“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,” a coalition of environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote in a petition to the EPA.

The EPA has said it expects regulated entities to comply with all obligations. If they don’t, the EPA said, the agency will take into consideration the pandemic on a case-by-case basis when determining its response.

The letter may do little to comfort lawmakers.

“Under this administration and this EPA Administrator, the chief function of the EPA has been to boost the bottom lines of corporate polluters at the expense of clean air, clean water, and public health,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), one of several Democrats who wrote a letter to the agency criticizing the policy.

“We should be using this moment to do everything in our power to make our environment healthier to reduce risk factors for COVID-19 susceptibility. Instead, the EPA has decided to stop doing their jobs.”

Tags Andrew Wheeler Coronavirus COVID-19 Enforcement Environmental Protection Agency Mike Quigley Pandemic Pollution

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